The Business of People

Banker-turned-business prof finds what was missing from her professional life

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Like many people working for corporations, Prof. Michèle Bowring, Business, often felt frustrated by the experience. As she saw it, the “people side” of organizational life tended to be neglected while more of the company’s resources were directed to technology and other areas.

“It’s not that the company’s leaders wanted to ignore these issues, but they tended to get pushed out of the way,” she says.

It was the desire to find solutions to these frustrations — or at least a few answers to her questions — that sent Bowring back to school and eventually into academia.

Born in Cairo, Egypt, she moved to Montreal with her parents when she was seven.

“I still have memories of life in Egypt, especially the summers, when we’d go to the beach in Alexandria,” she says. “I’ve been back several times, and it looks quite different from an adult’s perspective than from a child’s.”

Bowring did an undergraduate degree in psychology at Queen’s University, then found a job in the banking industry. She also became an optician for a time, then returned to banking.

“After many years of working, I felt something was missing in my professional life,” she says, “so I went to York University and started an MBA.”

At the time, the program allowed students to do one year at York followed by a second year at Laval University in Quebec City. During the first year of her MBA, Bowring continued to work full-time at her banking job, but while in Quebec, she was able to turn her full attention to her studies.

That’s when she started talking to her professors about the frustrations she’d experienced at work and her interest in understanding more about leadership and management.

“They asked me if I’d ever thought about becoming an academic, because then I could spend the rest of my life figuring out these issues.”

She hadn’t really considered the idea before, but once the question had been asked, Bowring saw a new direction for her professional life. After graduating, she eventually took a faculty position at the University of Manitoba. Five years later, she decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Leicester in England, where she was also a full-time faculty member. She joined U of G last July.

When she first heard about the opening at Guelph, Bowring was keen to apply.

“My partner and I always knew we wanted to come back to Canada at some point, and the U of G position seemed like a good fit. I’m hoping to settle down a bit now because we’ve had six long-distance moves in the past 18 years. One of my friends sent me a card when we moved here that said: ‘You might want to consider nailing down the furniture.’”

Bowring’s two main areas of interest are leadership and gender, and her research tends to combine the two. For her doctoral studies, she interviewed people from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States who worked in either the military (which she says would be considered a traditionally “masculine” organization) or as nurses (a more “feminine” career). About half of those she interviewed were lesbian or gay.

“I found that people had well-developed ideas about what makes a good leader,” she says. “But the challenge was working out how to manage that within the organization. We tend to see leadership as a masculine role, so the challenge for women was: ‘How feminine am I, how feminine do I want to be, and how can I be a leader and achieve that?’”

Being a leader isn’t just about having a particular title, adds Bowring.

“We all exhibit leadership in different ways in different settings. My goal with my research is to make things better not just for the leaders but also for those who are being led.”

She plans to continue exploring the question of how people negotiate and develop strategies to provide good leadership in organizations where people tend to react to the leader’s gender in ways that can make it challenging. She is also interested in studying how the media represent leaders, especially women in leadership roles, and has published papers analyzing the roles of Star Trek’s Captain Janeway, Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards and Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown.

To the classroom, Bowring brings a love of teaching and a desire to keep things current and interesting.

“I get bored easily, so I realized early on that I needed to develop a repertoire of things to teach, things I find interesting. I teach at all levels — undergraduate, master’s and PhD — and I enjoy them all.”

Last semester, she taught students in Guelph’s undergraduate leadership certificate program. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says.

Besides her responsibilities here, Bowring continues to serve on supervisory committees for University of Manitoba students doing master’s degrees in leadership and nursing.

Although she’s maintained that connection with Manitoba, Bowring says she likes living in Guelph.

“I’ve always lived in big cities, but I’ve come to really appreciate it here. It’s easy to get around, the countryside is beautiful, and people have been very friendly and welcoming.”

Her first week here, however, was not the ideal introduction to life in Guelph.

“Two days after we moved, my partner got sick and we had to go to the ER. The next day, I was bitten by a dog, so we were back to the ER. Then my partner got sick again, so we returned to the ER; it turned out to be gallbladder problems. Everything is fine now, but it was kind of funny that within a week of moving here, I knew half of the ER nurses by name.”