Barely a quarter of college presidents are women. Here are four of their stories.

Women represent just 26% of college leaders in the United States and 20% to 30% of college and university leaders in Canada—which means that women who do hold leadership roles in higher ed may have difficulty finding other women with whom to share advice and experiences.

To fill a similar mentorship gap in Canada, the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada (SWAAC) was founded in 1987. According to Angela Hildyard, SWAAC's secretary general, the group began as a network for female education leaders to discuss their problems and share suggestions with one another.

At SWAAC's recent annual conference, four female college presidents shared their experiences and advice during the SWAAC Presidents' Panel:

Ann Everatt, president of Northern Lakes College, told the panel that she wasn't originally set on pursuing a career in higher education—in fact, she really had no interest in it when starting her career. Instead, she wanted to be a computer scientist. But when she took up teaching at a community college during the evenings, she discovered how passionate she was about education and went back to school to study it.

Everatt's journey was long but rewarding—her career took her to countless different schools, and at each one, she told the panel, she had to set aside her self-doubt. Everatt says that she took the initiative to develop her own skills through stretch projects.

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Melanie Humphreys, president of The King's University, shared how her career developed out of a major risk she took early in her career. She had been working in student life at a Christian college, but told the panel that she felt like she had hit a "stained glass ceiling." Needing to advance her career somewhere else, Humphreys moved to Lithuania to work at a small institution that was in the process of rebuilding itself. She ended up staying in Lithuania for 10 years, which helped her realize her leadership potential.

Deborah Saucier, incoming president of MacEwan University, began her career in research and was asked to fill a leadership role at an inopportune time: she had a nine-month-old baby at home.

But Saucier accepted the position and exceeded her own expectations. Saucier chalks up much of her success to the strong and helpful relationships she fostered along the way. She says several allies were influential in pushing her forward.

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Annette Trimbee, president of the University of Winnipeg, took on a leadership role with the government of Alberta during a time when she says the majority of her colleagues were men—and a generation older than her, at that.

But Trimbee says this actually turned out to be a blessing because her colleagues wanted her to succeed. She held leadership in technical roles, policy positions, and civil service before entering into higher ed, where she says the diversity of her leadership experience made her successful (Crawshaw, University Affairs, 5/11).

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