When good enough is not enough

Back your own abilities and let your talents be seen, writes Verna Yiu. Here, she shares lessons from her own career journey on how women can increase opportunities for themselves and each other

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16 Feb 2024
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I had high marks. I had glowing reference letters. I believed that if I worked really hard, the right things would happen.

I was wrong.

Since I was 12, I had dreamed of becoming a paediatrician. I pursued this quest through high school, undergraduate studies and medical school until, finally, I could apply for paediatric residency positions. I was ready, I was qualified – and I wasn’t even offered an interview. Every single position went to a man. Being good enough wasn’t enough.

While much has changed since then, women continue to experience the reality that gender equality remains elusive, particularly in executive leadership roles. In 2023, Times Higher Education shared that women were serving as presidents or vice-chancellors in 48 of the 200 highest-ranked post-secondary institutions – an increase of five women over the previous year. We know that we are seeing gender parity among PhD candidates. In Canada, about 46 per cent of PhD graduates were female in 2019, according to Statistics Canada. But this abundance of talented and knowledgeable women is still not reflected in academic leadership ranks.

I’ve spent more than two decades holding executive roles, including at least one position as the first woman in my workplace. During my career, I have learned four core lessons that can help women advance.

Be visible

Gender or minority imbalance in leadership represents the “invisible minority”. Walk down the hallways of large institutions where legacy images of CEOs or presidents hang and, in many places, few women are represented, even among recent portraits.

When I applied for those paediatric residency positions, I wasn’t even seen as a possibility. While I went on to realise my dream of becoming a paediatrician – and have since held many leadership roles, from assistant dean to my current role as provost and vice-president, academic – I learned something important from that experience. I needed to be more visible.

That lesson was reinforced when I was at Boston Children’s Hospital as a paediatric nephrology fellow at Harvard University. A leader took me aside, advising me to be more verbal to compete with my more outgoing American colleagues. As an introvert, I needed to force myself to stand out. It wasn’t easy, but doing so is essential so people will remember you later when opportunities arise.

Tap a shoulder to support a colleague

One position that was integral to my leadership journey almost didn’t happen. When the position of assistant dean of student affairs in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry became available, I barely glanced at the opportunity. I was a young Asian woman – not a profile typical among those who had historically held the role. Then, someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to consider the position. That changed the way I saw myself. Until then, I had never envisioned myself in a leadership role. Not only did I apply and go on to be the successful candidate, but I loved the role.

This advice goes both ways. Support a colleague with a tap on the shoulder – and if someone does that for you, embrace the recognition of your abilities.

Own your competence

To get the careers we deserve, we need to be more assertive in defining our career paths. We need to advocate for ourselves, sharing our skills and knowledge while remaining humble. Owning our competence isn’t boastful; it’s acknowledging what we’re good at and what we can bring to a position.

When I learned that I would be the assistant dean of student affairs, I immediately thanked the dean, noting: “How lucky am I?” I’ve never forgotten his response: “Good people make their own luck.” From then on, I no longer considered luck part of the reason for a promotion. My successes come from hard work and being good at what I do.

Don’t hold yourself back

Finally, recognise your potential. Do not restrict your goals or aspirations. Be open to opportunities that will expand your skill set and help you grow professionally.

That includes taking on interim roles, which can offer a wealth of advantages. It’s a chance to test a position to determine if it’s a fit for you. My two key executive positions – provost and vice-president, academic, and president and CEO for Alberta Health Services – began as interim roles. I was also interim dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry in 2011 – the first female and the first person from a visible minority to hold that position.

Every time I’ve held an interim title, I’ve fully committed my skills and energy to the position. Every time, it has been a beneficial experience and has assisted me in developing my leadership skills. Take opportunities when they arise. It takes courage and can be risky – but I have never regretted those decisions.

It is a privilege to serve as a leader. At the University of Alberta, I am fortunate to work alongside many women who have extraordinary abilities and potential. I seek them out for opportunities where they will thrive and excel. I am so proud that today, women – including myself – sit as three of the five vice-presidents at the University of Alberta, but I know more work needs to be done – here and elsewhere. On International Women’s Day and every day, I encourage women to be visible, tap a shoulder, seek opportunities and help each other succeed.

Verna Yiu is provost and vice-president (academic) at the University of Alberta.

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See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from women leaders in higher education.


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