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University of Regina president Vianne Timmons is one of three women who spearheaded the initiative.

The lack of female leaders at Canadian universities is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed by every institution, says a group of university presidents who are pressing administrators and boards to make changes to how they recruit and promote women.

Less than a fifth of university presidents in Canada are women, a percentage that has not changed in decades.

"We still have universities in Canada that have never had a woman president. I was the first woman president in Saskatchewan, I was the first woman dean of education at UPEI," said Vianne Timmons, president of the University of Regina, and one of three women who spearheaded the initiative. "It's 2016 and we still have firsts? To me, it's astounding."

The group has been talking for more than a year but took its message public this week, during a meeting of all university presidents in Toronto, at a session on how to advance women's leadership in postsecondary institutions. According to numbers from advocacy group Catalyst Canada, the sector trails the rest of the economy where women hold more than 30 per cent of senior management roles.

"This is not a woman's issue … it's an issue for male presidents, it's an issue in the academy," said Dr. Timmons, who invited other presidents to join the movement.

On the weekend, the group will be speaking to university governing boards on how to improve recruitment and retention. Multiple studies show female university presidents are more likely than men to quit or be fired before the end of their term.

"Is part of what's happening that boards are somewhat risk averse, that they may not feel as comfortable choosing someone who does not represent the majority of presidents?" said Ramona Lumpkin, president of Mount Saint Vincent University, and a member of the initiative, along with Dawn Russell, president of St. Thomas University.

The initiative comes at a time of renewed discussion around gender inequalities in Canada, from harassment and assault on campus to the persistence of the pay gap.

Significant change is likely to be difficult, universities were told, in a presentation by Bill Thomas, CEO of KPMG Canada, who's spearheaded equity initiatives at his company.

Among the tips he shared with a room of university presidents – almost all men – was to favour hiring the woman when two candidates were ranked closely for a job.

At KPMG, "the tie will always go to the female candidate. If you're not prepared to step up and have that at the back of your mind, then you'll never make a difference," Mr. Thomas said. "The unconscious bias in your teams will constantly get you to a place where you'll defer to a 'lot like me.'"

The next step is increasing the pipeline of candidates for executive jobs. Women make up only 20 per cent of full professors, but 45 per cent of assistant professors. It's a critical time to get the latter prepared for senior jobs, Dr. Lumpkin said.

"We have to be sure that they have the confidence and the drive for university administration," she said.

Some changes are already under way. Universities Canada, the alliance of all universities in the country, has altered its bylaws so it no longer requires regional representation for its own executive board.

"It would get to the point where you would say 'Is there a woman president from Ontario that is at the right phase of her term?' Suddenly you are down to a very small number," said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada. "You need critical mass."

No current female leader should deny that getting to a top job and staying there is difficult, Dr. Timmons said.

"I collect social media about me because there is so much gender stuff," she said. She then presents the material at seminars for women on and off her campus. "I want to show them what you're going to face, you're going to face a different conversation about your leadership."

And no one should deny that change has happened and more is possible, she added.

She remembers pumping breast milk in a bathroom when she was a young mother and professor, only to be told she could not keep it in a shared fridge because it made men uncomfortable. "Those were the things we went through and we did not talk about them," she said.