Honouring a ‘beacon’ for academic women

Adela Talbot // Western NewsBrescia University College professor Helene Cummins recently received the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations Status of Women Award of Distinction for her work as a “strong, supportive voice” for academic women.

Helene Cummins acted quickly when the governing council of Brescia University College considered eliminating its Equity Committee two years ago. She worked to unite the faculty and staff of the women-only institution to convince the institution of the committee’s critical importance.

“Pay equity, work equity, the volume of work, service and teaching load for female faculty, the silencing of female faculty voices and being low on the political agenda – these issues are not easy to tackle, even at a women’s university college,” said Cummins, who teaches in the Department of Sociology and Family Studies at Brescia.

“I have worked extremely hard and spoken out, even in my own workplace. I wouldn’t fall for silencing; I would encourage colleagues to speak up. Why aren’t we discussing these issues of equity? There’s still a great deal of unfairness.”

For her tireless efforts, Cummins received the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) Status of Women Award of Distinction earlier this year. The award is sponsored by OCUFA’s Status of Women Committee and recognizes women who have improved the lives and working conditions of academic women and, by extension, their colleagues, families and communities.

“Helene has been a beacon of leadership for academic women at Brescia and across Ontario,” said Melissa Jean, President of the Brescia Faculty Association. “She has been a consistent, strong, and supportive voice, with a deep understanding of the historic and current issues faced by working women in the province.”

As Chair of OCUFA’s Status of Women Committee, Cummins has listened to the concerns and experiences of female academics across the province and has worked with faculty associations to identify possible solutions to continued inequities for women in the academy. She has taught at Brescia since 1993, researching gender issues, women in the workforce, working mothers and rural families, among other topics. Cummins has received a number of teaching awards, has served as chair of her department and has been an associate academic dean at Brescia.

Reflecting on her career’s trajectory and her accomplishments, Cummins feels proud, yet humbled. The OCUFA award, she said, is a “delight.” She is happy her academic work on gender issues and her efforts to promote equity are garnering attention – not because the attention validates her personally, but because it indicates her work is making an impact.

“You’re not looking for that sort of recognition. I didn’t even know I was nominated, but it brings so much joy to me because I really have worked hard to promote and advance fairness and equity, not just for female students, but for my female colleagues and colleagues across Ontario and Canada,” she said.

“It’s just really so life enhancing and I feel extremely proud, but also very humbled, that these awards would come to me across my career. As I’m evolving and maturing in my profession, I’m still reaching these points of distinction – it’s very promising and very humbling.”

For Cummins, the greatest satisfaction comes from service and teaching. In 2001, she received Brescia’s first Award of Excellence in Teaching. She has sat on the Dean’s Honor Roll of Teaching since 2000 and has been nominated for Western’s University Students’ Council teaching awards.

“When I stepped into the classroom in my first year of my PhD, I absolutely knew I had chosen the right profession. I absolutely love teaching, and I love my students. I’m focused on enhancing my skillset in teaching, and loving it more and more. It continues to be a joy,” Cummins noted.

“I feel blessed as a scholar. I really feel I’ve had this real depth and breadth to my career and I feel so blessed in being able to push the boundaries and find joy and happiness in my vocation.”