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How to take action against gender inequality and discrimination

Four steps graduate students, postdocs and their allies can take to advance equality.


Despite an increased proportion of full-time female faculty at Canadian universities, as reported by Statistics Canada in 2020, the “leaky pipeline” is not fixed. Women represent the majority of university graduates; however, the proportion of women drops over the progression of undergraduate study, graduate study, postdoctoral study and professorship. Even at the university leadership level, gender equality remains a struggle. In addition, while funding agencies emphasize gender equality in applications and study-design, trainees and postdocs do not always directly benefit from these policies due to the lack of direct processes to hold research leadership accountable for gender equality policy implementation at the individual team level. Furthermore, similar to the minority tax in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives, the burden of designing, developing and implementing gender-based analyses and strategies often falls on women, adding to the invisible work women carry in the workplace.

The specific case of pregnant people

The “baby penalty” affects women in academia beyond gender bias alone, and sometimes becoming pregnant as an academic can be seen as “risky”. Pregnant people in academia might be pressured, for example to take international travel incompatible with pregnancy, or to work overtime to get “as much work done as possible” before a leave. Pregnant women may also be subject to gaslighting and shaming practices, regarding the impact of their pregnancy and the subsequent leave on project progress. Other discriminations include but are not limited to restrictive roles on projects, losing authorship or ownership of projects, or being questioned on their academic commitment.

Pregnant postdocs also face hidden financial costs of “keeping up”, such as working while on leave (writing grants and papers, advising lab members), and continuing to pay membership fees to scientific societies (which are necessary to maintain continuous membership and be eligible for awards, grants, discount, support when returning in the field) out of their own pockets. Additionally, maternal and parental leave policies are highly disparate based on employee groups (student, postdoc, staff) and even within employee groups (for example, some postdoctoral positions do not offer benefits, depending on their funding source). These discrepancies lead to adverse effects, such as women self-excluding from applying to fellowships that do not provide benefits and/or leave.

Promoting the change and taking action

In a highly competitive training and professional environment, where trainee and staff career development depend on reference letters and word of mouth, accountability for gender equality can be forgotten. However, allies in the field and some action can go a long way. As a graduate student or a postdoc, here are steps that you can take to advance gender equality in your field and at your institution. Since the issues are intersectional, the steps below apply to all – allies, women, and gender-diverse people.

  1. Knowledge is power. Read about relevant Canadian laws and regulations (for example, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, sections 15 and 28). The Charter prohibits discrimination based on the grounds of sexual orientation, marital status, or citizenship. Be familiar with your institution’s gender equality policy (if available), and those of your funders, and inform yourself about protected disclosure, gender-based harassment and discrimination policies in your institution.
  2. Advocate! Your local student organization or postdoc union is crucial to amplifying your voice within your institution. Representatives from these organizations often sit on key committees and represent you when university leaders discuss policies. You can also join your research institute board as a student or postdoc representative and raise gender equality-related matters there. In addition, you can advocate within professional organizations, particularly on their task forces or groups in charge of gender equality or the status of women in the field, for example.
  3. Do not stay quiet! If you witness or are a victim of gender-based discrimination, harassment, or violence, contact the proper channels within your institution to report the inappropriate behaviours and support the victim. These channels can be your institution’s women’s centre, the protected disclosure office, or your student or postdoc union. For allies: never forget that you are in a position of power and that your support means the world to those who need it.
  4. Build a community! It takes a village to create societal change in academic institutions. Identify allies or join women’s groups or initiatives to support gender-equality, if you are an ally. There are some successful examples of community building to help women in STEM, such as the Immigrant and International Women in Science (IWS) network, which supports immigrant women in STEM in Canada; Women in Academia Support Network; or disciplinary-specific networks such as the Women In Malaria (WiM) network or the FeMS (Females in Mass Spectrometry) These organizations are only a few examples of the vast network of peer support groups available. You can also create a local network to provide discussion groups, organize educational workshops and support your peers.

Gender equality rights are guaranteed in Canada and promoted by funding agencies’ policies. As a student or postdoc at a Canadian institution, I encourage you to know your rights, advocate, speak up, and build a community. These steps will lead to meaningful change.

Claire Kamaliddin
Claire Kamaliddin is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Calgary, researching infectious diseases using translational approach. She is also the co-leader of the Immigrant and International Women in Science network in Calgary.
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