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The Black Hole

Canada’s minister of science calls out sexism in science

David Kent realizes that as a white male researcher, he is part of the problem, but he hopes that sharing and supporting initiatives such as Minister Duncan's will be a step in the right direction.


As a Canadian born and trained scientist working abroad, there are occasional moments where you hear about exciting things “back home” – this weekend was one of those moments when several colleagues forwarded me an opinion editorial in the Globe and Mail by Canada’s current minister of science. In her op-ed entitled Science is still sexist. I know from my own experience, the Honourable Kirsty Duncan assures the Canadian public (and scientists!) that she is pushing for serious change across the Canadian research landscape. I am very hopeful.

Minister Duncan tells a few anecdotes from her own experience and then rattles off statistics that highlight the breadth of the problem: 50 percent of PhDs are women, but only 25 percent of professors are women; just 30 percent of Canada Research Chairs are women (with a further imbalance of Tier 1:Tier 2 ratios); and just one woman (of 26!) was part of the recently announced $260 million Canada Excellence Research Chair program. These are sad examples of how Canada continues to miss the mark on critical issues of equality and diversity. Moreover, Minister Duncan adds, the structural inequities are even worse for visible minorities, disabled, or Indigenous researchers.

Minister Duncan pledges to make a difference “As Minister, I am working to reverse this pattern of discrimination.” Perhaps the most tangible thing (and this stuff works!) is her instruction to Canada Research Chair program officials to “withhold funding for universities that do not meet their benchmarks in two years,” – and this was communicated directly to university presidents. Boom. A similar edict was issued here in the U.K. (see previous article) to propel the Athena Swan program, when Dame Sally Davies announced that major national funding would only be awarded to institutions that co-operated with the program’s goals to improve equality and diversity.

Throughout my scientific training in universities (1999-present), there have been a constant stream of programs designed directly (sometimes indirectly) to address this imbalance – but the imbalance persists and has prompted numerous lines of research to uncover additional reasons – clearly identifying the problem is not sufficient. The numbers confirm the reality that white male researchers (myself included) still find their way into a disproportionate number of senior scientific positions and the structure of the current system seems to support a continuation of this trend.

One particularly insightful comment came from a U.K. politician Jo Swinson, who was tipped this week as the best hope for the leading the U.K.’s Liberal Democrat Party.  She declined running for the post saying:

It’s true that my many years of encouraging women to have the confidence to go for that exciting new role have taught me that women often don’t go for things when they should. But just as often I have observed men going for the promotion when they shouldn’t. Just because a man would do it, doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

I wonder if this sentiment rings true with female scientists and how much of our broken scientific system these sorts of behaviours could explain. Moreover, why does it tend to fall to powerful women to improve the lot of women in science (e.g., Dr. Duncan, Dame Davies)? Is the inaction and complacency of powerful male scientists and policymakers the strongest deterrent to real change in the scientific workforce?

I do not pretend to be an expert on these issues and know that many of our readers have a much stronger understanding of inequality in academic work spaces – but I am part of the problem (a white male researcher) and would rather be part of the solution. So I hope that sharing and supporting initiatives such as Minister Duncan’s will be a step in the right direction. It is clear to me that identifying and calling attention to such issues over the past decades has not been enough and we need more bold moves such as Minister Duncan’s if we want to see real change. We’d also like the Black Hole to be fighting the good fight when it comes to equality and diversity issues as well – getting the very best solutions the most publicity possible and letting conversations grow into sound policy suggestions. So if our readers have any comments, ideas, or guest posts to share, we’d be very interested in giving space to good ideas.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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