Judy Illes, Elizabeth Croft, Simon Peacock – Opinion Editorial, Vancouver Sun, March 7, 2016

UBC's first graduate degree was awarded to chemist Ruth Vivian Fulton, pictured here with a chemistry group in 1919 Photo: University of British Columbia Archives [UBC 93.1/16]
UBC’s first graduate degree was awarded to chemist Ruth Vivian Fulton, pictured here with a chemistry group in 1919
Photo: University of British Columbia Archives [UBC 93.1/16]
Tomorrow marks the 41st International Women’s Day, a celebration of women, mothers, daughters, and sisters, partners, leaders, followers, water-bearers, cooks, and carers around the world. International Women’s Day, originally called International Working Women’s Day, has been celebrated on March 8 every year since 1975, with events honouring women in culturally different ways with appreciation and respect. It is a movement with both an underlying political and human rights theme. While anecdotes from the past have hinted that the day may also have been used in certain regions of the world as an excuse to escalate domestic violence, lessons about the global struggles and successes of women are used today as stepping stones for moving ahead.

It’s the year 2016. Have we reached the end of the path to achieving equality and diversity? Does the world still need an International Women’s Day? As the hosts of a UBC Centennial event Wednesday focused on these issues that looks back and looks forward, we tackle these questions through the lens of leadership in engineering, the sciences, and medicine we are privileged to hold.

One hundred years ago, UBC welcomed its first entering class of students. We recognize, for example, the University’s first and, for a quarter century only, female engineering student, Rona Hatt who entered in 1917 at the age of 15. She graduated from Chemical Engineering in 1922. Fast forward: today nearly 30% of students entering UBC engineering are women. Just last year, Mechanical Engineering graduate and CEO of Awake Laboratories, Andrea Palmer, won the Canadian Global Impact Competition for her invention that helps parents and children living with autism manage anxiety.

In 1919, UBC’s first graduate degree was awarded to chemist Ruth Vivian Fulton. Between 2006 and 2013, UBC evolutionary biologist Sarah (Sally) Otto completed a veritable hat trick by earning a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (better known as a “Genius” Grant), and being elected to both the Royal Society of Canada and the National Academy of Sciences. Today, equal numbers of women and men enroll in UBC sciences, yet women remain underrepresented in programs like computer science.

Over the past years, the representation of women and men has been approximately 50-50% among incoming medical students, a big leap from 1954 when there were only two women in the first graduating class: Dr. Margaret Hoehn known for her work in Parkinson’s disease, and Dr. Marjorie Jansch who continued on to family medicine practice. Dr. Edith McGeer, who came to UBC in that same year, is universally acknowledged as one of the leading researchers on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Together with her husband and Ludmila (Lola) Zledowicz, one of British Columbia’s first female neurologists, she was one of the first to study the drug levodopa for treating Parkinson’s Disease. Dr. B. Lynn Beattie established the province’s leading Clinic for Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders at UBC Hospital 1983. After more than 25 years, she is still a force in every aspect of geriatric medicine, and recently she forged new ground in clinical neuroethics, working tirelessly to bridge traditional understanding of wellness and disease with western biomedical practice among First Nations People.

Despite these success stories and a remarkable number of others, in 2011, past Provost David Farrar, at the request of then President Stephen Toope, established the position of Senior Advisor to the Provost on Women to address persistent issues within our communities and unmet needs among students and faculty alike. A search is open now for a second advisor, drawing upon the hard work of Rachel Kuske from the Department of Mathematics, who was the first to take on the challenges of this role.

As we look ahead to the next 100 years and the leadership that women and men in our universities must undertake to solve the enormous environmental, economic, social, health and technological challenges that face all of us, it is essential to move beyond arguments of equity to recognition of necessity. It is perilous to overlook the value that diversity brings to scientific discovery. A sustained, intentional approach will lead to a natural continuity of inclusiveness that does not need to be revisited time and again from square one. It will yield a culture of inclusiveness that promotes thoughtful, honest, and open dialogue. In this century of the collective, enduring solutions will draw upon a wide range of ideas brought together in scholarly discourse, and they will be grounded in academic merit, mutual respect and ongoing encouragement.

We are excited about UBC’s next 100 years. Wednesday we will celebrate this great institution of higher education in British Columbia, and its women, men, students, faculty and staff, families and friends. Join us.


100 YEARS WISE: Bridging the Past and the Future. Chan Centre, March 9, 2016. 7 pm.

The event is free but tickets are required. For information: http://www.ubc100.ca/100wise

Judy Illes is Professor of Neurology and Director of the National Core for Neuroethics, University of British Columbia.

Elizabeth Croft is Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Associate Dean, Education and Professional Development, University of British Columbia.

Simon Peacock, is Professor, Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences and

Dean of Science, University of British Columbia.