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Speculative Diction

Gender and the CERCs, redux


Last week saw the announcement of another round of Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERCs). The CERCs are another example of the federal government’s ongoing commitment to targeting large amounts of funding to “priority areas” determined to be of strategic importance to Canada — one strategy on which the Conservatives and Liberals seem to agree. Universities put together proposals featuring a star researcher (usually one to be recruited from overseas), and each of the winners receives up to $10 million over seven years. The first round of CERCs was awarded in 2008.

What’s different about the latest announcement is the overt emphasis on (gender) equity: “the new competition will require institutions to include detailed equity plans and recruitment strategies that promote the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in the CERC program.” While it’s great to see this being highlighted, the announcement was still a bit surprising if you had some knowledge of the backstory. The CERCs have been criticised from the start for their lack of women recipients, and there had been investigations that led to a major report (in 2012) followed by the implementation of equity practices even before the second CERC competition in 2013. Dan Munro posted a helpful series of tweets about this, asking the Minister for an explanation about what exactly is “new” given the existing policy, and then going through some of the history regarding the gender issues with the CERCs.

I have some familiarity with those issues, because back in 2008 when the first awards were announced, there was a fair bit of media coverage and I did an analysis of some of it. My conference presentation is here (forgive me; it’s from 2011 and I hope I would do better now). What you’ll see there, if you have time to take a look, is a discussion of the kinds of gendered tropes that were coming up in online discussions; I included some examples of comments from online articles, as well as analysis of the articles themselves.

At that time, the “excellence vs. equity” argument was coming through clearly in some of the reporting and in many of the comments on media articles. I suspect this framing hasn’t changed since then; it’s based on the assumption that competition brings out the most “excellent” candidates, and we should not sully the field by considering how it might not be open to all competitors in the same ways. If a candidate is good enough, they should be able to overcome whatever additional hurdles they might face — so goes the logic. If the winning candidates are all male, then it just shows that women weren’t good enough to compete; men’s work was “better.” Thus a critique of structural issues relating to gender and intellectual work is dismissed as sour grapes. Also at work here is the idea of meritocracy, i.e. that success is determined by factors such as individual ability or talent; this downplays the structural effects that influence individual outcomes.

Looking at media coverage about the CERCs, I found that the use of sports metaphors in media coverage was one example of this framing of the awards themselves and their benefit to Canada, since of course nations need to be “competitive” as well (“own the [research] podium”, anyone?). This in turn can be linked to particular norms of masculinity, which are relevant to the way the university is a gendered institution: intellectual work itself has long been perceived as a masculine domain, and STEM areas, where the CERCs have been focused, are even more so. These are norms that persist even as increasing numbers of women climb the academic ladder.

Frances Woolley wrote a fairly extensive post about the CERCs at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, taking the story further back to the Canada Research Chairs (CRCs), which were also subject to an investigation regarding gender imbalance (in 2002, followed by a human rights complaint in 2003). Woolley is right that an equity policy won’t solve the problems we face when it comes to hiring women into the most senior and visible academic positions. The pyramid-shaped diagram tweeted by Dan Munro seems to confirm a pretty clear pattern, but depending on your framing of the situation (hey, maybe women just aren’t excellent enough!), the explanation and proposed solutions will be different.

I think there are at least a couple of points Woolley made that need further unpacking. For example, she comments that relocation is not easy; top women academics often have spouses with professional jobs. But obviously these women have professional careers too; maybe part of the problem is that women’s career goals aren’t seen as a priority. Recent research showed one reason women may not take up academic positions is that their spouses would have to be uprooted and might not have a job in the new location (whether this is the same for women whose partners are also women, the research couldn’t conclude because there weren’t enough such couples participating). Women on the other hand were more likely to say they would move for a partner. So it’s not just that spouses, and families with children or other dependents, are hard to relocate; it’s also that men’s careers are likely to be privileged even if opportunities arise for their spouses.

Woolley argues that “It is hard to have a family and still devote the amount of time to research — and to self-promotion — required to achieve global fame.” True, but many successful men have families too; why are we not concerned about the effects on their careers? Probably because not only are men in academe not penalized professionally for having children, they may actually be rewarded for it. Meanwhile, women who have children will almost certainly face discrimination on the job market, a fact reflected in the advice dished out to them. Aside from that, depending on personal context they’ll also likely be taking on the bulk of the labour associated with child care, and facing an academic world that is still generally unwelcoming to mothers.

I want to connect this point to another recent post, this one from David Kent at the Black Hole blog. The author jokingly describes parental leave as “the poor man’s sabbatical”, during which one can use distance from everyday work to gain perspective on research questions and approaches. The reaction to this on Twitter, mainly from women academics, was critical; check this thread for a good discussion of why, even in light of earlier posts in the same series, Kent’s piece reflects how men experience parenting differently in part because the expectations they face are radically different.

Aside from all this, there’s also the prevalence of sexual harassment in academe, which has received recent attention in various disciplinary areas and is a pervasive issue for women in STEM. There are too many examples to name, but a few recent visible cases (from the U.S.) include those at UC Berkeley, CalTech, University of Chicago, and Yale. What we don’t get to see is the number of incidents that happen every day in classrooms, labs and offices, and are never reported. Those experiences send a message to women, which is that they aren’t valued or respected as peers and colleagues by those who harass and abuse them, or by institutions that fails to adequately address the abuse.

The argument we still hear often, that women simply choose not to go into certain areas, or choose not to pursue leadership roles — is radically inadequate. Women’s “choices” don’t happen in a vacuum. They are affected not only by what is technically possible, but also by norms, expectations, and biases, which are gendered. The assumption that inherent merit or “excellence” determines outcomes is also a fundamentally flawed one, because so many other factors are at play when it comes to professional success.

These are structural issues and they relate to long-held assumptions about gender roles, which are re-articulated and re-circulated constantly, and built into our institutions. If more men are taking on parenting work during parental leave, that helps to set an example. If we all refuse to tolerate it when colleagues speak about women in demeaning terms, that’s an example too. If more senior academics raise the issue of unconscious bias (such as what can occur with reference letters) then that’s a step in the right direction. But we have so many steps yet to take. The CERC program itself, like much other highly targeted funding, represents a problematic approach because it seeks to scoop the current top performers rather than cultivate long-term inclusive capacity that supports all “talent.” That latter one is the longer path to “world-class” standing, but if the Canadian government wants a real move towards equity and diversity and excellence in academic leadership, it’s where they have to go next.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Chris Armets / October 28, 2016 at 15:11

    This publication is in desperate need of balance in its reporting and editorials. I find the relentless bias repulsive and not representative of the breadth of university opinion.

  2. Helen / December 15, 2019 at 07:55

    I agree with Chris Armets. This problem isn’t limited to this publication though. Have a seat at any university faculty function and you’ll quickly discover that bias and intolerance for breadth of opinions is widespread in the academe. In this case, there’s also a severe lack of evidence supporting the author’s speculations. Pontification doesn’t equate reality.

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