2017 Influential Women in Business honouree Q&A: Martha Piper

Past president and vice-chancellor, University of British Columbia – Lifetime Achievement Award
| Chung Chow

Each year, Business in Vancouver recognizes B.C.’s most outstanding businesswomen in private and public-sector companies. Honourees have risen through the ranks to become leaders in their fields. They help to influence and shape policy not just in our province, but also at some of Canada’s largest companies and organizations. This year’s winners include six women across a wide range of industries, with varying backgrounds and some very impressive credentials.

Martha Piper grew up in a white-collar family in a blue-collar town in Ohio. Higher education was inevitable, but wasn’t necessarily the career goal, at least not at first. Piper got a PhD in epidemiology and biostatistics at McGill University and then became director of its School of Physical and Occupational Therapy until 1985 when she became dean of the University of Alberta’s faculty of rehabilitation medicine, among other roles. Piper was appointed president of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1997, and held that position until 2006. She also served as interim president from September 2015 to June 2016.

What does it mean to be an influential woman? • This honour is more a reflection of UBC than me. If UBC wasn’t the institution it is today, I wouldn’t be getting this award – I’m absolutely convinced of that. A lifetime achievement award is a very powerful message. It’s never one thing you did. It’s a combination of continuous contributions. That is very meaningful. That’s all any of us can ask for – is that we make a difference, or try to make a difference in whatever we do.

Who are some of your mentors? • I have found female mentors in people I have never met. They are women I have admired through reading about them, learning about them and thinking about them. One is Eleanor Roosevelt. She was an amazing woman. She was brilliant and very strategic. Another is Georgia O’Keeffe. She painted what she wanted to paint.

What does work-life balance mean to you? • When I was president, every day I found myself making decisions about what to do and what I couldn’t do. For me, everything came down to family and work. That was it. There wasn’t really much else. It meant no hobbies or tea with friends and little entertaining outside of work. You have to be intentional. It just doesn’t happen. I spent a lot of my disposable income on help. My mother would cringe if she knew what I spent on help. But I know I feel better when my house is cleaned, I have ironed clothes and when the kids were well looked after.

What is your advice for the next generation of women leaders? • I think young women often think feminism is for the birds and they can do whatever they want. That’s true, but it’s not totally true. There are still battles that have to be fought. I think it’s really important that women aspire to leadership roles. However, they shouldn’t do it naively. We have to recognize there are still barriers. There is still discrimination out there. We also have to help each other. If there are ways for us to make it easier for those who follow us, we should do it. 

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