Elizabeth Cannon was appointed the first female president of the University of Calgary in 2010 and has since improved the school's international ranking. Courtesy of the University of Calgary.

Elizabeth Cannon is an expert in geomatics engineering and her research has been at the forefront of the development of global positioning systems (GPS). She holds three patents, twelve software licenses, and has commercialized technology to more than 200 organizations across the world. Elizabeth was the first Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)/Petro-Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering in the Prairies from 1997-2002, leading groundbreaking research on the topic of women in sciences.

Since 2010, she has served as president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary. She is the first woman to hold this position. Under her leadership, the institution’s international ranking has moved to the top university under fifty years old in North America and ninth worldwide. Elizabeth is a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, the Russian Academy of Navigation, the Royal Society of Canada, and the Royal Institute of Surveyors. She sits on several boards and is chair of the board of directors of Universities Canada. Elizabeth has received more than fifty institutional, national, and international awards for her groundbreaking research, teaching, leadership, and professional service, including the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and the Engineers Canada Gold Medal in 2013.  

Why did you pick geomatics engineering? It was at a time when new systems were being developed and used in satellite navigation technology. I got a sense that this was fascinating and it was going to be a really interesting area. I liked the physics of it. It was sort of math- and computer-based and I enjoyed that. I liked the fact that you were actually using it; trying to imagine little microns on circuits wasn’t exciting to me, but this was something that was going to be quite useful in a practical way. That appealed to me.

What do you enjoy most about being an engineer? I take pride in calling myself an engineer. It’s a respected profession; people know it’s hard. It’s a tough program and those who can do it, show a level of dedication and commitment. Number one, I thoroughly enjoyed what I did when I was doing research and teaching and making a contribution through some of the technology we developed. I’ve used an engineering mental framework in how I view and exercise leadership. Engineers make very strong leaders, they make strong contributions to their communities. Engineering is about solving problems and generating solutions. I’ve been aligned professionally with a wonderful group of people who value honesty and strong ethics. I take a lot of pride in that.

Can you identify some of the significant turning points in your career? In 1991, I was finishing my Ph.D. and universities were not hiring, not that it was on my mind. This is when NSERC [the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada] came out with its women’s faculty award program to get more women into faculty positions in science and engineering. They opened up a national competition for fifteen spots. They subsidized the faculty salary. My supervisor and department head asked me if I would be interested in being nominated. I said, “Why not?” I was fortunate to be selected. It steered me into the academic world, where I wouldn’t have naturally gravitated to, and opened up a lot of opportunities. I would not be an academic today if it hadn’t been for NSERC.

I would say another one was when I became a chair for women in science and engineering. I was sort of chugging away, doing my teaching and research, and then they opened up the competition for the five regional chairs. My dean said, “Would you be interested in being nominated to do this?” I could have easily stayed on the path I was on. I was doing very well. Life was good. But I thought about how I could give back in a significant way. I was doing all of the women in science and engineering work off the side of my desk, and that is really hard to do. When I joined the engineering school in 1991, I was the second female faculty member. I was of the next generation so there was a lot coming at me and expectations. I thought, “If I really want to do something, this is my chance.” I said, “Okay, I’m going to do it.” It was a major opportunity for me. It was my first leadership experience; you’re given some resources, money, and a big problem. You have to figure out what you’re going to do. You have to build a network and a community. You have to define where you’re going to make an impact in that space. I think as women we often hurt ourselves because it’s never enough. What I learned, something that has served me well, is how to manage my own expectations — I’m going to be my toughest critic — and also manage the expectations of those I’m working or interfacing with. I had to really clearly define a strategic plan. What I was going to do, what I was not going to do, write it down, communicate it, why I’m doing it, and what the results are, which is kind of what I do now. It was the first personal test of my leadership.

Are there challenges to being a female president of a university? Absolutely. I always say you’re walking a narrower corridor of behaviours. What would be acceptable for a man, would not be acceptable for a woman. You’re a curiosity. You see it with female politicians. There is a subtle bias in the community and in the media. You’re held to a higher, different standard. You have to be very careful, which makes these jobs very lonely.

Part of being a female leader is understanding your value and your political capital at any point in time. You’ve got to earn it and then when you earn it, you have to know how and when to play it. What are your issues? You can’t react to everything. We’re all smart people, but can you match your intellectual capacity with that ability to have emotional awareness of yourself, of others you’re dealing with, and of the situation around you? You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, understand what’s motivating them.

What are you most proud of in your career? As president of a university, it’s hard to have an impact. It’s a big ship. I’m a very results-oriented person, very driven. What I am most proud of at the university is how we have coalesced around a shared vision for the future. When I came in we had good things happening at the university, but we didn’t really have a vision for the university. We did a strategic plan for the institution, launched in 2011. We’ve just refreshed it. That strategy has been the driving force for the university for the last five-and-a-half years. We’ve gotten very tangible feedback on impacts, we can measure them and communicate them, people believe in them. People understand and largely buy into that shared vision. That to me is very powerful because that’s an enabler to do great things. If we have a collective sense of where we’re going, a collective pride in the organization, I can sit back and turn people loose, they can do great things. That is the foundation you need.

Where do you believe you made the biggest impact as chair for women in science and engineering? When I started that chair, I decided to focus on three areas. One was in research, because I felt as an academic that the one thing that I could do, that perhaps somebody outside the university could not do, was to do incredible, high-quality research that looked at some of the issues. The second was to pilot programs that would actually feed off that data and have an impact. The third piece was communication. Going out and talking, breaking down the myths. What was I most proud of? Probably the research piece because that was an original contribution to the field. It was very interesting for me to work side-by-side with researchers from education and sociology, understanding how they work and their value systems. Some of those research studies stand up today as being valuable. We won some awards. What I liked about it is that because we did that research and I was out communicating, I was able to shine a light on some of my colleagues to audiences that they would never have interfaced with. I provided them with a platform. People were just so hungry for that research and for their expertise. I thought it was fabulous.

What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? I love being an engineer. It’s a fabulous profession. Whether it’s men or women, if you are passionate, do it. There’s so much variety within an engineering career, you can find your way. Find that passion, don’t be afraid.

Why do you think women continue to be underrepresented in engineering? We did research in the 1990s and I’m sure it’s still relevant. What we found in one study that really resonated with me is that women wanted challenging careers as much as men; in fact, they were willing to work harder than the men that were surveyed. But they needed to connect that effort to a personal value of theirs. In other words, if I am going to put a lot of work into something, it has to align with something that is important to me. For whatever reason, we have not, collectively as a profession, been able to draw the parallels between what you are going to put in and where it can take you. The other theory I have is typically young women in high school, if they’re good at math and science, they are good at everything. All doors are open to them. The world is their oyster. Where do they see value? If they are going to work hard, they want to see what it will get them in the long term. A lot comes down to the value proposition for them.

To me, until we really start looking at the curriculum in a more holistic way, I’m not sure we’re going to see huge leaps and bounds. We need better instruction in high school physics and math. When we did surveys back in the 1990s, we surveyed kids in junior and senior high. I remember it struck me that female students did as well in physics as their male counterparts but they just didn’t value it as much. They’ll step up and put the effort in to get their “A,” but it’s not because they really love it. It’s not catching their attention. Until we change some of that, I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of women.

How have you seen the issue of women’s underrepresentation evolve in the last decades? You have seen continued effort and a normalization within engineering schools and the profession that this is important. Nobody is out there saying it is not important. I think the risk is always, “Haven’t we done enough? Is this still the issue of the day?” We need committed leaders, men and women, to encourage young women to pursue a career in engineering. If we don’t have that, we will retreat. I worry about that.

How do you define innovation? To me it is about being creative. It is about making something work. We differentiate between what is an invention and what is innovation. Innovation is bringing a creative invention or technical invention through to impact. It may have economic impact, it may have an efficiency impact, it may have social impact, but it’s actually made to work. Some people have great ideas, they are visionary, but if you can’t translate that into results, it’s meaningless. Ideas are cheap.

How can we encourage innovation? People need to be empowered and they need to be incentivized. At the University of Calgary, we’ve created the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. We secured a $40 million gift. It’s a highly technologically-sophisticated building and classrooms. It’s basically an incubator for teaching innovation. It incubates new curriculum, new ways of integrating technology into the classroom, and new ways of student learning. To teach in the building, you have to be doing something innovative and you have to be willing to disseminate it and measure success, a kind of hub model. You create an opportunity and you empower people. You say this is important, let’s do more of it. This is all about risk mitigation. To be innovative, especially in teaching, you’re taking a risk. Students evaluate every semester. How do we create spaces where faculty feel empowered and encouraged to be innovative and to take a risk? We’re providing opportunities, we’re surrounding them with a team of experts.

To read more about Elizabeth and the other Women of Innovation, purchase the book here.

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