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In my opinion

Faculty diversity: A quarter-century hiring report card

My department has been successful at striving for equal overall gender representation, but we remain primarily Caucasian.


Late in 2014, I attended a 25-year club induction. It was a pleasant evening – good food, lively conversation and humorous speeches. But it was also a time to reflect on those 25 years and to ponder where my department and university have travelled and currently reside.

In a quarter century, the University of British Columbia has morphed from a substantial provincial university to a ranking in the top international league tables with a huge research profile. My department has not tangibly grown in those 25 years in tenure-stream faculty numbers, but its composition has changed remarkably in terms of gender. In what I say below, I don’t wish to single out UBC or my department as an outlier or to suggest that the situation here is any different than can be found at other universities or departments. I am simply writing from my own experience.

When I attended my first faculty meeting in the late 1980s, I was struck that the 18 tenure-track faculty consisted of seventeen men and one woman. She was later not renewed. By 2015, the numbers were officially ten men and eight women. And yet, it will likely be another 10 years until we achieve true gender equality across ranks. Today, all five full professors are men, in addition to three associate professors and two assistant professors. Of the eight women, seven are associate professors and one an assistant professor.

Looking at the current female faculty members, three were hired in the 1990s, two in the 2000s and three in the 2010s. Three other women were hired in the 1990s and early 2000s – one has since retired and two left for positions at other universities. So, technically speaking in 25 years, our department has hired 11 women. In that same time period, we hired six men: three in the 1990s, two in the 2000s and one in the 2010s. No male faculty member in our department has actually left for a position at another university in the past 25 years. In total, then, since 1989, 15 men and four women have retired, resigned or, sadly in one case, passed away.

Success on gender, but …

One can make a number of observations about these facts. We have been successful at striving for equal overall gender representation, but we remain a Caucasian department, with only one faculty member who belongs to a visible minority, and have to my knowledge no-one who identified as having a major discernible disability at the time of hiring. We do seem to follow a more general pattern of women faculty members not achieving, in substantial numbers, full professor rank in their careers, but this is likely to be remedied in the next five to 10 years in our department when some full professors retire and women move into those positions from the associate rank.

Another observation is that it appears easier for women than for men to change institutions. One suspects the general desire to rebalance departments country-wide on gender lines produces opportunities for female faculty to move. One also reads that spousal hires have historically tended to be women. In terms of social justice, or simply basic fairness, such hires are a mixed blessing: They have the potential to promote gender equity, but they also create instant couples belonging to the top tier of society, with a combined income of $200,000 and up, and thus arguably such a policy reduces the overall “diversity effect.”

If we were genuinely concerned about socio-economic diversity, spousal appointments without an open competition would not be encouraged. Unfortunately, it seems highly utopian these days to expect universities to increase its diversity by attempting to give preference to working or lower middle-class individuals. If there were institutional and public support for this approach, we could reasonably ask to see a candidate’s parents’ income and historical job categories to establish such a new preference. The modern university has answered this question with a shrug, effectively saying that macro-structural financial inequalities in society are not its concern.

The diversity options in most university job ads mention women, aboriginals, visible minorities and people with disabilities. Some mention people of minority sexual orientation. Laudable as these are, should they be the only preferences? And what order of preference should be followed?

In the arts, it is inevitable that as departments seek to correct the historical gender imbalance, fewer men than previously will be hired. I am speaking of the typical arts faculty department that averages 60 to 70 percent female student enrolment. I know that areas of the sciences, as well as business and engineering, are much less remarkable in the general shift from male to female hiring. Indeed, my university as a whole still currently employs almost twice as many men as women in tenure-track positions. Until the pool of PhDs in each area has men and women in equal measure, universal gender parity will remain elusive. Without supportive mentorship of female PhD students, such equity may be achieved much later than we think.

Some critics of hiring processes in universities have argued from their own experiences that merit is often thrown out of the window and replaced by female preference in establishing a shortlist. I don’t doubt this has happened on occasion, though my own experience on hiring committees is much more along the lines of choosing a female faculty member over a male when all things are relatively equal in order to promote diversity and to assist the department to reflect better the students it is teaching. At UBC then, with its significant Asian student population, once at the shortlist stage, it should be no surprise that an Asian female candidate would be preferred over a Caucasian female, even if the latter were an excellent fit. Whether an Asian male candidate should take precedence over a female Caucasian candidate in a department with few women is a pointed and vexed question for a hiring committee to answer.

Based on my department’s quarter-century hiring history, one can say we in the arts have significantly moved towards gender parity in the faculty’s make-up, but have failed to make progress on issues relating to diversity in the round. One can only hope the next 25 years of hiring will see a welcome pivot to realize these diversity ideals.

Brian McIlroy teaches film studies in the department of theatre and film at the University of British Columbia.

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