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Margin Notes

Discrimination in academia

Is there bias against women in hiring decisions? Or is it really a bias against men? I doubt either.


I found Professor Andrew Irvine’s recent comments about gender bias in academia rather intemperate. On Tuesday, in an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun, the University of British Columbia philosophy professor said that the real discrimination in our universities is against men, not women. He was countering the criticism from some quarters that all 19 of the new Canada Excellence Research Chairs had gone to men. A number of female professors (see here, for example) said this showed discrimination against women.

But Professor Irvine would have nothing of it. “Although some people have expressed concern that the first round of Canada Excellence Research Chairs have all gone to men,” he wrote, “much more common are university job searches that are biased in favour of women.” Most departments allow men to apply, he said, but almost always “give preference” to women.

Aside from a few vague anecdotes, the good professor provided no data to back up his claim. I wanted to do a bit of digging on my own to see if his assertions held up, but I didn’t have the time to follow up.

So I thank Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason for doing the work for me. In today’s paper, Mr. Mason calls the professor out, saying his argument “doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny.”

Mr. Mason writes:

According to the latest numbers available, just produced by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), 41 per cent of new faculty appointments were filled by women in 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Now look at supply. The professorship comes from the ranks of our PhD students. In 2007, more than 46 per cent of Canadian PhDs went to women. So, if the discrimination Prof. Irvine alleges was real, you’d have thought that the number of women hired to teach at our universities that year would be something like 50 to 55 per cent, not 41 per cent.

Instead, men were more likely to get these appointments.

That analysis is somewhat simplistic, but I still think it’s valid. It would certainly appear that there is no widespread plot to discriminate against men in hiring decisions.

As for the initial controversy – the awarding of all the 19 CERCs to men – I declare myself neutral. Is it troubling? Sure it is. Does it show overt discrimination against women? Almost certainly not. In fact, I find that suggestion ridiculous.

(Speaking of ridicule, that’s exactly the tactic used by a writer in the On Campus section of Maclean’s to skewer the controversy, penning a short satirical piece entitled, “Left-handers shut out of CERC appointments.”)

But I don’t entirely dismiss the concerns of some women academics that there may be, unintentionally, a lingering systemic bias in the system. That is possible. After all, academia was an old boy’s club for a very long time.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Dr.Doinglittle / June 3, 2010 at 15:56

    I can only speak to my experiences at two university depts, both roughly the same size. At the one, I’d say there is equal-sex hiring policies. This department still has more men than women faculty but it’s a lot closer to balance than most other depts.

    At the other university dept, there is definitely gender bias in hiring decisions. The dept is almost entirely male (around 80%), the result of men being hired disproportionately for many decades. Now the dept is trying to make up for this inequity and “catch up” by hiring more women. It is unspoken but if a female candidate applies for a position, she is definitely given greater consideration. Men are still hired on occasion but this is mostly because no female applicantions were strong enough to make the shortlist.

    Sexual discrimination is a real force in some situations. Why wouldn’t it be? Most university hiring decisions are made by a small group of faculty peers. With the right mix of people, it doesnt take much for a group to coalesce that has an agenda to hire either men or women.

    That said, I don’t think one’s sex matters nearly as much as other factors in hiring decisions, i.e. political leaning, ethnicity, place of degree, etc. There is a much larger pandora’s box waiting to be opened there. If people only knew how skewed and partisan some hiring decisions are!

  2. David Kent / June 4, 2010 at 09:27

    Hi Leo,

    I’ve been reading your Tweets and Margin Notes material for the last two months and wish I’d had it years before – keep up this excellent work.

    One thing that strikes me about this debate above is how much of it can be accounted for by the PhD/post doctoral fellow production and professor hiring practices of other countries.

    Anybody who wants to use “the numbers” to support their argument would be wise to figure out how many Canadian men/women are getting professor jobs abroad (I’ve heard rumours that this tends to be a male dominated practice) and how the gender breakdown works in Canadian hiring when you look at Canadians vs. internationals.

    There are many ways that the numbers can cover up a gender bias and I suspect (though I’ve not done my proper homework either) that one would still find a bias toward men being hired on in tenure track positions.

    That latter point is also important – the phrase “hired to teach” in Mr. Mason’s article could reflect any number of positions and if one is querying “women in the top tier of research” (the type the CERC awards would go to) – they have to look at tenure track assistant professorships not simply “people with PhDs hired to teach”.

    Keep up the great work Leo, I look forward to hearing much more!


  3. LJS / June 24, 2010 at 10:17

    My personal experience in the last three years has reflected the opposite of what Dr. Irvine argues. I have had six interviews for tenure-track positions in both Canada and the UK, and in all but one, the person hired was a (white) male. For me this is very troubling, especially since in a few departments there were no or few women. I noticed that one Canadian university I interviewed at two years ago has had three other hires since then, and all of those hires were also white men; there are three women in that department (out of 20 faculty members). I know there are many women with PhDs who are equally qualified and most likely these departments have interviewed them. Perhaps there needs to be a review of hiring practices at Canadian universities to address the imbalance of tenure-track women (considering that there are many women with PhDs who are very competitive). I have recently been offered a tenure-track position in a department where I will be the only female tenure-track. And I will note that it is also an all-white department. Academic hiring does not reflect the population in doctoral programmes in Canada – this needs to be addressed!

  4. JCW / August 21, 2010 at 13:43

    The author thanks Gary Mason for “making his point for him” in writing;
    “Now look at supply. The professorship comes from the ranks of our PhD students. In 2007, more than 46 per cent of Canadian PhDs went to women. So, if the discrimination Prof. Irvine alleges was real, you’d have thought that the number of women hired to teach at our universities that year would be something like 50 to 55 per cent, not 41 per cent.
    Instead, men were more likely to get these appointments.”
    However, every faculty position announcement that I have read lately calls for post-doctoral experience so the “supply” of Canadian PhDs is not in fact the pool of newly-minted PhDs, but the pool of post-doctoral fellows. I suspect at least for my field and from knowing female PhDs in my cohort that many women are pursuing non-academic careers, therefore decreasing the “supply” of female candidates below 41 percent.
    Is anyone aware of any numbers on 1) how many Canadian female PhDs go on to post-doctoral fellowships and 2) how many actually apply to faculty positions?
    Anecdotally, I’ve also been told by established university faculty who were on hiring committees that they were verbally told to hire a women by higher-ups for at least one position – and that there is now a tendency for departments to ‘balance’ their staff.

  5. still looking / May 20, 2012 at 00:34

    I applied for 78 openings in Canada and US. Followed up on the hires afterwards; 41 female candidates; 14 PIs who wanted to move for whatever reasons and the rest I have no idea….Got a hold of 11 departmental chairs that attested secondary considerations (gender, sexual orientations and other strategic considerations) being a strong influencing factor in decisions made. However, they assured me that such secondary considerations only apply when candidates’ ranks are equal qualification wise. Looked up the CVs of the hired candidates. I do agree with what the chairs say-really all great people!. I don’t think there is any unfairness in the process. However, there is a very strong tendency to hire female candidates.

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