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Looking back, looking ahead

Trio considers how the world has changed for women

U of T's director of high performance sport, Beth Ali, believes women should seek strong female mentors as they move through their careers. (KPE photo)

For International Women’s Day, U of T News asked a staff member, a faculty member and an alumna how U of T and/or their field of specialty has changed during the past few decades.

Beth Ali, a former field hockey player, is the director of high performance sport for the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

1. Did you ever have hopes of competing on the world stage? Why is it so hard for women’s sports to be recognized and supported? Will that change as more and more women compete in sports from childhood?

I came to high performance sport relatively late as an athlete. My introduction was at York University where I played varsity field hockey under Marina van der Merwe, who was also the women’s national team coach at the time. It was under Marina’s influence that the idea of becoming a high performance coach was born. As a high performance athlete or coach, the dream of representing your country at the Olympics is ever present. I coached at the Pan American Games, the Commonwealth Games and numerous Olympic and World Cup qualifiers but our team never qualified for the Olympic Games.

I believe that in Canada we tend to recognize professional sports far more than amateur sport, and given that there are few professional opportunities for women, often women’s sport gets overlooked. Amateur sport becomes a focus every four years, and once the Olympic Games are over, it tends to fade into the background.

However, university sport does provide an excellent opportunity for women in sport to compete at a high level, to be supported through the provision of coaching and competitive resources and to enjoy a small but dedicated fan base.

The more people realize that there is a framework in which female athletes can develop from recreation to high performance and from elementary school to university and beyond, I believe we will achieve a greater number of participants and a greater number of successful and recognizable female athletes.

2. How important are female role models in sport?

The next step is to create a framework to develop female coaches and officials so that girls and women can see themselves as a significant part of a sport development model, not only as an athlete, but as a coach or an official. Having female role models is essential to the success of women in sport.

3. Do you think women will ever be able to compete professionally in male-dominated sports if they can prove equal talent?

I believe that if a sport is developed and marketed with appropriate resources and it is populated by talented female athletes, there will be fans that will be attracted by the level of competition and skill and athleticism of the athletes. Women’s tennis would be an example of such a model.

4. How did you overcome the obstacles of succeeding in the male-dominated world of sports administration? What advice would you give to young women?

I have been blessed with excellent role models throughout my career, and I came from a sport that is dominated by strong women  –  field hockey. It never entered my mind that I could not succeed in athletics because I was a woman or that I would face insurmountable challenges. I also spent a lot of time in the early stages of my career at the Faculty of Physical Education and Health (now the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education) where an environment conducive to career success was ever present.

My advice to young women is to find one or two strong female mentors who you can look to as role models. And to successful women  – pay it forward. Open yourself up as a mentor to a young woman and make the time to do it well. In this way, we all succeed.

Professor Sioban Nelson (pictured below, right) is dean of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing.

1. How has your concept of the nursing profession changed over time? Did you grow up imagining Florence Nightingale? How does the reality match the dream?

I must confess the last thing on my mind when I started nursing was an image of Florence Nightingale. Later as an historian I learned to appreciate Nightingale's remarkable accomplishments, and not just with respect to her interest in nursing. However, I was always fascinated by the way nursing took you behind the curtain and placed you with people at critical, intimate and vulnerable places in their lives.

The work itself is so challenging and interesting – and ultimately so important to people's lives. I always liked it that nursing is a clinical science with a strong technical component, and at the same time, it brings you in such connection with the body, with emotions and the social context in which people, their families and their communities live.

2. Nursing was once solely a women’s profession, but that is changing. How has that changed the profession itself?

Nursing is certainly a much more popular career choice for men than it has been in the past. I think our male students see it as a great career and are rather confused by continued reference to Nightingale. That said, most nurses remain women and much of this comes down to the way in which activities that are associated with nursing, such as care of the body, remain highly gendered in our society. I think that we will not see a significantly higher proportion of men in nursing until men in caring roles becomes unremarkable, rather than the exception.

3. Can you talk a bit about the worldwide trends in nursing?

Around the world there is enormous development in the education of nurses, which has in many cases been challenged by the fact nurses are women and have less access to education and less of a voice in their health care systems.  Improving population health, creating a safe and effective health care system are important goals in every country and nurses are critical to success.

At Bloomberg we take our responsibilities seriously as global citizens. By supporting our nursing colleagues around the world, we can directly impact the health of those populations and at the same time support the advancement of women through the profession. It's very exciting work.

Linda Silver Dranoff  (pictured below, right) is a Toronto lawyer who earned her undergraduate degree from the university in the early 1960s. While an undergraduate, she protested women’s exclusion from Hart House, something that changed in 1972.

1. What was the common feeling about Hart House among the female students of the time?

It was known to be off-limits. The terms of the original gift of Hart House in 1919 by the Massey family limited the facility to men only, because “education for gentlemen was best carried on by gentlemen among gentlemen!”  Most women in the 1950’s did not question this.

2. What were general attitudes towards women?

Women were not expected to get a university education or be employed after marriage; indeed, many women attended university for what was jokingly described as a “MRS.” Degree.  This was long before the concept of feminism had any currency.

3. Tell us about the struggle for admittance. Were many people involved? What kind of resistance did you meet and from whom? What were the arguments against membership?

In my first year of university, I learned that Senator John F. Kennedy, then being touted as the possible next president of the United States --in fact he was elected in 1960 -- was coming to Toronto on Nov. 14, 1957 as a guest debater in a Hart House debate on the topic “Has the United States failed in its responsibilities as a world leader?”  He was scheduled to cross swords with the campus’s pre-eminent speaker and debater, Stephen Lewis, later Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations.

Women were excluded from attending.  A small group of us decided to protest our exclusion.  First, three or four of us met with then-Warden Joe McCully to ask for special dispensation, but he refused. So I wrote a letter to the editor of the Varsity exhorting women to “get together and FIGHT!!!” And our hardy group of women, by then about 20 of us, picketed in the rain beneath the window of the Hart House Debates Room, chanting and marching and holding signs of protest demanding “Equal Rights for Women.”

I tried again the next year, and was featured in the Varsity with the headline “Upstart Co-Ed Upsets Light-Hearted Debate.” The lead paragraph read, “A University of Toronto co-ed last night threw the staid Hart House Debates room into confusion when she insisted she be recognized by the chair…”

However, Hart House remained mostly off-limits to women, except for the Arbor Room after 3 p.m. and occasional dances and concerts, but only if you were with a man.

It was not until 1972 (15 years later) that Hart House became fully integrated, after Vincent Massey’s death in 1967, increasingly loud objections from women students, and the university challenge to the original Deed of Gift limiting Hart House to women.

4. What was it like to use Hart House for the first time? Are you amazed by the changes when you go there today?

I turned up, with great elation, at the Arbor Room for lunch on the first day Hart House was opened to women.  There were no washroom facilities for women then; I am glad to see this has changed!  I am also pleased to see female students and staff now enjoying and working in its facilities.

5. Is it important to keep the memory of the struggle alive?

It is always important to remember the history of women’s progress and achievements.  That is true for many issues involving women’s fight for equality; if we are not vigilant, we risk having the advances taken from us.