A new Statistics Canada report on university teaching staff reveals an aging professoriate and lagging gender parity in the upper echelons, offering a glimpse at the challenges ahead for staffing in academia.
Many sectors are grappling with a labour shortage driven by the pandemic, set to worsen by the early and impending retirement of baby boomers (and to some extent Generation X).
Academia is no exception – currently, more than 20 per cent of working-age people in Canada are between 55 and 64 years old; among university professors, it’s 27 per cent. While there’s technically no mandatory retirement for most professors – about 11 per cent are 65 and over – many tend to retire around that age.
Howard Ramos, a sociology professor at Western University, said his main impression from the report is that academia will likely see a period where Gen X professors (those currently between 43 to 58 years old) will be overworked and overburdened. This may force their millennial colleagues to take on more roles and responsibilities earlier in their careers than the generations before them.
The main result of this could be burnout for both groups, said Dr. Ramos, who has served as an expert for the federal Labour Force Survey. “Those who remain in the system often didn’t receive great mentorship, and if you’ve been brought into a system without that support, then you’re not necessarily equipped to offer it.” Many of these professors, especially women, are also dealing with what Dr. Ramos called the “life-course crunch” of having both dependent children and elderly family members to look after.
Fewer women full professors
Women’s overall representation in academia has more than tripled since 1971, from 12.7 per cent to 42.1 per cent by 2022. But those gains aren’t equally distributed: at the full professor level, women sit at 31 per cent, compared with 44 per cent of those who are associate professors and 51 per cent at the assistant professor rank. Depending on the university, full professors may be offered a pay increase, better research access and funding, or prestigious roles like professor emeritus or dean of their department.
The reasons for women’s advancement lagging at the highest level are multifaceted, said Bessma Momani, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo who has researched pay equity in academia. “Some argue that women are just less concerned about that kind of prestige,” she said. “But when [women] do seek full professorship, it opens them up to a host of new obligations that divert away from their research, and just [require] more time.”
Misogyny and racism only compound the problem, particularly for women in STEM fields and for women of colour in any discipline. “It’s still very real that the entire structure, from the rewards to the process of promotion, is in this male-normative vision,” Dr. Momani said. She noted that the highly competitive “publish-or-perish rat race” can undermine the camaraderie that many women seek for support.
With most professorships now requiring a PhD, the timeline for completing one tends to land in the years when some women look to start families. Lack of mentorship is also a factor, which Dr. Momani said is a cascading problem: “If you don’t have the representation, you don’tp have the role models.”
Filling the gaps
The data also revealed a generational gap in the professoriate, which Dr. Ramos said is a result of hiring in cohorts; a significant number of baby boomer professors were hired around the same time, leaving younger generations bottlenecked below. In 1971, more than 13 per cent of the professoriate was younger than 30; today, it’s less than one per cent. That trend holds for professors younger than 40 too, dropping from 57 per cent in 1971 to 14 per cent in 2022.
How will universities fill these impending gaps? In recent years, there’s been much discussion about a market flooded with PhD-holders all vying for a limited number of positions, so it may seem that the solution is already there. However, Dr. Ramos pointed to what’s not included in the Statistics Canada data that would provide a more complete picture: the number of adjunct, contract or otherwise contingent staff, which universities have increasingly relied on as cheaper alternatives to tenure-track labour (recent studies have found that at most universities, the majority of teaching positions are contract jobs).
Given their considerable presence, the question becomes whether universities have a plan to promote these instructors to the professor level and shepherd them through the ranks, Dr. Ramos said. “To me, the biggest inequities are whether or not you get access to the tenure track,” he said. While the stats on women working in the professoriate are important, there’s also a need for data on the career status and representation of the other federally designated employment equity groups: Indigenous peoples, members of racialized groups and those with disabilities. In addition to access to the tenure track, Dr. Ramos said the data deficit is “one of the biggest structural constraints blocking equity, diversity and inclusion.”
François Gélineau, a professor at Université Laval, said that collecting information for EDI purposes can be challenging because it largely relies on staff to self-declare as belonging to an equity-seeking group. Privacy laws vary by province, but they typically prevent universities from mandating faculty to disclose details about things like their cultural background or sexual orientation. “I can tell you the composition [at U Laval] as far as Quebec versus international students, but that doesn’t quite speak to diversity,” he said.
However, it doesn’t mean that EDI initiatives have to be put on pause. U Laval is mandated by Quebec’s Equal Access to Employment in Public Bodies law to maintain data on how many faculty members are part of the the policy’s equity-seeking groups: Indigenous peoples, visible minorities and those whose first language is neither French nor English.
Ideally, however, Dr. Gélineau said that EDI efforts should start well before a person has begun their career. “We hire faculty members at the end of the continuum, but inequalities will start at an early age, sometimes before kids even go to school,” he said. “We might not be able to correct everything at the end of the continuum. The effort needs to be shared across society.”