Badass women of SFU

Let yourself be inspired by the women who left their marks on campus, on the field, and in academia

Illustration by Tiffany Chan

By Eva Zhu 

When SFU opened in 1965, only 37% of the student body was made up of women and only 16 of the 126 faculty staff were women (that’s about 12%). As of fall 2014, 13,000 of the 25,000 students were women and the faculty staff was made up of 330 women and 634 men (34.2%). In honour of International Women’s Day, it’s worth remembering, celebrating, and honouring the women who worked, studied, played, and led at SFU.

This piece will look at our university culture as a whole, and into the work of women in two faculties: the faculty of arts and social sciences (FASS) which is the largest faculty at SFU, and the faculty of applied sciences (FAS) because science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is notorious for being male-dominated. According to a 2017 article from The Peak, the enrolment rate of women in the FAS recently peaked as one-fifth of all students were women, including 20% of students in engineering, 18% in computing science, and 11% in mechatronics. In short, just because we’re not honouring the achievements from women in your particular faculty, doesn’t mean that they are any less awe-inspiring, capable, and awesome!


SFU presidents, vice-presidents, and chancellors

Pauline Jewett, image courtesy of The Canadian Encyclopedia

Pauline Jewett was the first and only female president of SFU, which was the first major Canadian university to appoint to appoint a female president. She served from 1974 to 1978. After she left SFU, she was elected as the Member of Parliament for New Westminster-Coquitlam, serving from 1979 to 1988. The Pauline Jewett House in residence is named after her.

Dr. Barbara J. Rae became the first female chancellor of SFU from 1987 to 1993. SFU is also her alma mater, as she completed a Master of Business Administration at the Beedie School of Business in 1972. The Barbara Rae House in residence and the Barbara Rae Cup in women’s basketball are named after her. In 1991, she received the Order of BC, and in 1995 she received SFU’s Distinguished Leadership Award.

Liora Salter was the first (and as of right now only) woman to serve as acting vice-president, academic and provost of SFU (1989–90).

Dr. Carole Taylor served as the tenth chancellor of SFU from 2011–14. She is the second woman to hold the position. Previously, she was the province’s minister of finance from 2005–08.


Faculty of arts and social sciences

Dr. Gloria Gutman is a force to be reckoned with in her field, gerontology. Between 1982

Dr Gloria Gutman, courtesy of SFU News

and 2005, she pioneered the Simon Fraser University Gerontology Research Centre and the Gerontology Department. She has written, contributed to, and/or edited over 180 scholarly documents, 22 books, and over 300 conference papers. Not only is she an accomplished academic, she also founded the Gerontology Association of British Columbia. Gutman is queer positive, as her research interests include LBGTQ+ aging. In November 2016, she was appointed to the Order of Canada for her work and her advocacy against elder abuse.

Lesley Cormack was the first woman to be appointed as dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences and served from 2007 to 2010. Dr. Jane Pulkingham is the current dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences, appointed in 2016. She is also a professor of sociology at SFU, and her interests include gender, work, public policy, and inequality. Her most recent work is Walking the Line to Put Their Families First: Lone Mothers Navigating Welfare and Work in British Columbia, published in 2016.

Dr Maggie Benston, Courtesy of SFU Archives

Dr. Margaret ‘Maggie’ Benston is truly one of a kind. She was fluent in chemistry and philosophy, having studied both as an undergraduate before receiving her PhD in theoretical chemistry from the University of Washington in 1964. She joined SFU as an assistant professor the following year. In Vancouver, she helped found the Vancouver Women’s Caucus and published an article “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation” in 1969, a text which defined feminist debates in the upcoming decade. She was also one of the founders of the women’s studies program at SFU, the first university in Canada to offer a credited women’s studies program. This resulted in the approval of a minor in women’s studies in 1975, and by 2004 the program began accepting PhD students. Benston taught chemistry, women’s studies, and computing science at SFU, teaching the latter two until her death in 1991. SFU named the Maggie Benston Centre after her.


Faculty of applied sciences

Dr Lesley Shannon, Courtesy of SFU School of Engineering Science

Dr. Lesley Shannon is an associate professor in the school of engineering science and the BC and Yukon chair of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The NSERC tries to educate youth, parents, and teachers on areas of study and research related to STEM. Additionally, she runs the Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology, an organization who aims to raise the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in STEM fields of study and careers. In 2017, she was awarded the Wendy McDonald Award as a Diversity Champion for striving to eliminate barriers that hold women back from pursuing STEM careers.

Faranak Farzan, Courtesy of SFU Mechatronics System Engineering

Dr Faranak Farzan is an associate professor in the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering who has studied and worked at Harvard Medical School and the University of Toronto. Adding to her already amazing list of accomplishments, she is also the chair in Technology Innovations for Youth Addiction Recovery and Mental Health. She leads research in finding non-invasive technologies to help youth struggling with mental health issues and addiction.

Dr. Angelica Lim is a professor in the School of Computing Science who completed a bachelor of science at SFU in 2008 and holds both a master’s degree and a PhD in computer science from Kyoto University. If this isn’t already cool enough, she runs the Robots with Social Intelligence and Empathy (ROSIE) Lab (inspired by Rosie, the helpful robot from The Jetsons). The lab develops robots that are useful and able to interact with humans, and artificial intelligence software that is able to understand human emotion. ROSIE is located on the Burnaby campus if anyone wants to check them out.



The first four women’s varsity teams at SFU were basketball, field hockey, track, and swimming.

Gail Sayers, a basketball player, played for SFU from 1973 to 1978. The records in women’s basketball that she set upon graduation for the most points ever scored by one player (2,537) and the most rebounds (1,385) stood for decades. She was named the first female athlete of the year in 1976 and in 1977. At time of graduation, she held four other SFU records. In 1990, she was inducted into SFU’s Hall of Fame.

Debbie Brill was a member of SFU’s track and field team and the first woman to be

Debbie Brill, Courtesy of the Canadian Encyclopedia

inducted into the Simon Fraser University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1986. At 16, she was the first North American woman to clear six feet in the high jump. She invented the “Brill Bend” (jumping over the bar backwards) and revolutionized the high jump forever. According to SFU Athletics, she set the world indoor record for a high jump in 1982 (with a 1.99 m jump). Although she has never won an Olympic gold, she has won gold in the 1970 Commonwealth Games, 1971 Pan-American Games and the 1979 World Cup.

Sheila Strike was a star forward for SFU’s basketball team. She competed on the Canadian women’s basketball team who finished sixth at the 1976 Summer Olympics the first year women’s basketball was an Olympic sport alongside another Athletic Hall of Fame inductee Bev Bland.

Carol Huynh, Courtesy of SFU Alumni Appreciation

Carol Huynh attended SFU from 1998 to 2004 and was on the wrestling team. She became the first Canadian woman to win a gold medal in wrestling at the 2008 Summer Olympics. In the 2012 Summer Olympics, she walked away with a bronze medal. In 2017, Hunyh was inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame.


Editor’s Note: For more things women-centric to celebrate International Women’s Day, you can also check out “The History of Women at SFU,” “Gender disparities in engineering and computing science at SFU and its effects on female students,” and “Meet Paola Quirós, new co-ordinator of the Women’s Centre.”