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Canada not alone in terms of gender disparities in research

But new report does find a “shocking” lack of Canadian data tracking the progress of women researchers.


When the federal government unveiled in May 2010 the inaugural recipients of its prestigious new Canada Excellence Research Chairs, it knew there’d be controversy: all 19 of the chosen chair holders were men. In anticipation of the fallout, several months prior to the announcement then Industry Minister Tony Clement asked three leading female academics to examine the program’s selection process to probe what had happened.

The three-member panel found there was no active attempt to shut out women but identified several factors that they thought might have worked against female candidates. Based on that, the industry minister decided to go a step further: he asked the Council of Canadian Academies to investigate which policies and other factors influence the career trajectory of women researchers in Canadian universities. The council appointed a panel of 15 experts chaired by Lorna Marsden, a professor and former president of York University. The panel’s deliberations are now done, and its report, Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension, was released on Nov. 21.

The panel found that while there has been tremendous progress over the past 40 years in Canada, there remain “real sticking points in the careers of highly trained and highly educated women, and that represents a talent loss,” said Dr. Marsden in an interview. “At the very least, we need to understand them and how they operate. If we could loosen up some of those channels that are now being choked off, that would be of great benefit to this country and to innovation and research.”

However, the panelists found they were hampered in their evaluation by a lack of comprehensive and longitudinal data – not just from governments, but from the three granting councils, Canada’s universities and the private sector. The U.S. and European nations, they noted, were far ahead in terms of benchmarking and tracking the progress of women researchers. This lack of Canadian data was “both shocking and frustrating,” said Dr. Marsden. “I don’t think any of us going in had any idea there were as many gaps, inconsistencies and lack of access that we discovered.”

The controversy surrounding women in research is not new. Back in 2003, a group of seven women filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination in the awarding of Canada Research Chairs. An early analysis of the program by one of the complainants, academic Wendy Robbins, found that only 17 percent of the chairs had been awarded to women. The complaint was settled three years later with a negotiated agreement that called for future targets in the recruitment and appointment of under-represented groups.

If there is any solace for women researchers in Canada, it’s in the finding that Canada is far from alone in its predicament. “The profile of women’s representation in Canadian universities is strikingly similar to that found in other economically advanced nations,” including the U.S and on average across the European Union, the report notes. Women outnumber men at the undergraduate level but the proportion equals off at the doctoral level, and after that men outnumber women at every step up the academic ranks. However, internationally there is some variation in the percentage of women within ranks, and some nations (notably Finland and Sweden) are closer to achieving gender parity in research than others.”

The report also noted that women’s progress in Canadian universities is uneven by discipline. Women faculty members in Canada are most represented in the humanities, social sciences and education (40 percent) and the life sciences (35 percent), and least represented in the physical sciences, computer science, engineering and mathematics (15 percent).

And again, the higher the rank, the lower the percentage of women compared to men. As of 2008-09, women held one-third of all faculty positions in Canada, of which approximately 43 percent are assistant professors, 36 percent are associate professors and 22 percent are full professors. Further, while the growth in the proportion of female PhD graduates is encouraging, “the data indicate that time alone will probably not be enough to balance the proportion of men and women at the highest levels of academia.”

So what’s stopping women? The panel identified a number of factors that affect female participation even before university and throughout their careers. For instance, socialization and stereotypes “define social roles and expectations and can contribute to the lack of encouragement for girls to forge non-traditional paths.” There is also a paucity of women in leadership positions who can act as mentors and role models.

At the institutional level, women researchers report a “chilly climate” where “the combined effects of seemingly small inequities can create a negative atmosphere … including the cumulative effects of stereotyping, recruitment and evaluation biases.”

Finally, the report points to several studies which indicate women in academia spend more time than men on child care and unpaid domestic work, and these additional responsibilities hamper their ability to build their professional profile. “More family-friendly options and more flexible models of career progression are important considerations for a diversifying workplace,” says the report.

The expert panel said it hopes the report will serve as an important tool in the development of new policies and programs. In particular, Dr. Marsden said she hopes the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the Canadian Association of University Teachers will see the benefits of working together to re-examine barriers and practices.

She continued, “There is no silver bullet. There’s no point in blaming government policy, or blaming universities, or blaming women. Life is complicated, and for this particular group of people in these particular career lines, all these complications come into play.” But, “these are not insuperable barriers and I’m sure there are ways of resolving them.”

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  1. Theresa Camilleri / January 2, 2013 at 20:18

    This comment may indeed be worth only two cents but I consider it a duty to submit in case it sheds any light on the problem.

    My experience is mainly with University students and faculty in the field of mathematics but it may apply to the sciences. Given that my relationship with my students has always been that of educator and close friend, some have begged for guidance over the fact that a boyfriend demanded that the student give up mathematics as condition for any progress in their friendship. I am certain that the reader will readily guess the “door” she came out by, the one I had in mind for her all along. As recently as two weeks ago, a faculty member in one of our universities was referred to me for help. The problem: she is being treated in the most humiliating fashion, a manner, that is, that absolutely no one should have to put up with. She could not make up her mind about applying to another university; what if she encounters the same problem? Quite a dilemma. I gave her a number of ways that she should start responding politely but very firmly to any “disgraceful” treatment, or should I say, any attempt at shabby treatment.

    It is not the reason, but one important reason, why I think that history of the scientific field we are engaged in with our students is important. Again in mathematics, there are so many instances of ill treatment of women in academia, starting with Hipatia (c. 370-415 BC) in ancient Greece, Sophie Germain (1776-1831 AD) in France. The former was assasinated and the latter overcame obstacles to admission to the Ecole Polytechnique under male guise (till her true identity was discovered by Joseph Lagrange. On a brighter note, we have several women in positions of responsibility in astrophysics and space research.

    It appears that, apart from scientific knowledge, women need to learn to stand up, politely and very firmly, to any male chauvinist. After all, we are past the age of physical abuse or change of identity in academia but discrimination is alive and well it seems.

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