Earlier this week, the Federal Government announced the 19 successful candidates for the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program. The program was designed to woo high-powered scientists from all over the world. While the results are being hailed as an intellectual coup for Canada, some wonder why no women were selected for the jobs.
Feds grant big dollars to all-male research group
May 19, 2010
Nineteen men and no women were selected to be Canada Excellence Research Chairs, receiving a total of up to $10-million in federal money over the next seven years.
OTTAWA – Not one woman was among the recipients this week when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government handed out big dollars for big thinkers.
Of the 19 people who were selected to be the first of the “prestigious” Canada Excellence Research Chairs, receiving up to $10-million in total in federal money over the next seven years, all were men.
Some women scholars are outraged, and even Industry Minister Tony Clement is concerned by the total shutout of female researchers.
It comes when the Conservative government is already under criticism for how it is handling women’s issues – the new ban on support for abortions in overseas aid, cuts to women’s advocacy groups and the winding-down of the long-gun registry.
“I felt kicked in the stomach,” says Wendy Robbins, co-ordinator of women’s studies at the University of New Brunswick and one of a group of academics who mounted a successful human-rights challenge to the gender imbalance in a previous, federal research-chair program.
Robbins says that she’s in discussions now to see whether a new human-rights complaint may be necessary. The exclusion of women researchers was reportedly a hot topic on Tuesday in an on-line discussion group that Robbins runs, featuring 1,600-plus subscribers among women academics and advocates.
On this issue, though, the Conservative minister in charge is sympathetic.
“It really stands out, and I said: ‘where are the women?’” Clement said on Tuesday, a day after the research chairs, billed as the “world’s most renowned,” were announced with much fanfare in Ottawa.
Clement told the Star that the conspicuous lack of women prompted him to launch a small investigation of his own a few weeks ago, to see whether the system was biased against female researchers.
Anita Neville, the Liberals’ status-of-women critic, says the situation is the result of the Conservative government closing its eyes to any discussion of women’s issues.
“You’ve had no advocate for women in this government,” Neville said. Though she praises Clement for noticing, Neville said “it’s just not good enough” to promise it won’t happen again.
Suzanne Fortier, head of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) was one of the people asked by Clement to look into the selection process and she argues that the problem mainly boils down to too few women in the pool of applicants.
Women aren’t heavily represented at senior levels in the fields of research where the federal government was looking for research chairs, Fortier said. The four main areas include: environmental sciences and technologies; natural resources and energy; health and life sciences and information and communication.
This isn’t to say that women aren’t in those fields, Fortier hastens to say – it’s just that they’ve only started to enter them in great numbers in Canada and elsewhere in recent years and it will take a while for them to reach the senior levels sought to fill the Canadian Excellence Research Chairs (CERCs).
“I know that they are there, they are coming, and in 10 years, watch out,” Fortier said.
Other problems revolved around finding women candidates flexible enough to make the career and family moves required to fill the research-chair positions, as well as the intense competition out there to attract the small number of senior women in the science and technical research realms.
Robbins says that these are old arguments and she’s heard them all before.
Back in 2003, Robbins and seven other women academics – helped by the legal advice from the Canadian Association of University Teachers – launched a formal gender-discrimination complaint against the Canada Research Chair (CRC) program, set up in 2000 by the previous Liberal government. The complaint was lodged with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
It was settled three years later with a negotiated agreement that called for future targets in recruitment and appointment of under-represented groups. But that agreement doesn’t apply to this new program, and Robbins fears that the Conservative government has set up this different system of research chairs to do an “end run” around that old dispute and argue that “excellence” has trumped equity.
“If this were just an isolated thing, it would be one thing. But this is systemic,” Robbins says. “We all know what the Harper government stands for in terms of women’s issues, and taking the word ‘equality’ out and the notion that feminism is dead and women’s issues have been solved – it’s not the case.”
Clement said he’s obviously not pleased about the shutout of women and is hoping it doesn’t happen again. “I just want you to know, it leaped out at me. It leaped out at everybody, we talked about it and we have to figure out what happened here.”
Excellence, not ‘equity’
Here we go again: Another day, another trumped-up controversy about Stephen Harper’s supposedly retrograde agenda.
On Tuesday, the Toronto Star breathlessly informed its readers that “not one woman” could be found among a new batch of academic grant recipients.
“Of the 19 people who were selected to be the first of the ‘prestigious’ Canada Excellence Research Chairs, receiving up to $10-million in total in federal money over the next seven years, all were men,” reported the Star. “‘I felt kicked in the stomach,’ says Wendy Robbins, co-ordinator of women’s studies at the University of New Brunswick and one of a group of academics who mounted a successful human-rights challenge to the gender imbalance in a previous, federal research-chair program … Robbins says that she’s in discussions now to see whether a new human-rights complaint may be necessary.”
Ah yes — kicked in the stomach. Where does the Star find all these women, gays and visible minorities who supposedly spend day and night enduring endless blows in the midsection from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives?
It’s a wonder half the country isn’t writhing around on the pavement, gasping for breath.
But here’s a question for Ms. Robbins, and the Toronto Star reporter who went running to her for a reaction quote: How many men teach women’s studies? Has an effort been made to recruit male academics to balance the faculty in women’s studies departments? Or are there just too few qualified men who apply? What about other traditionally “female-dominated” fields of study, like nursing? Have women launched “human rights complaints” to get men into those areas? If not, why not? Shouldn’t gender equity be the priority in the hiring practices of every department?
The answer to this last question, of course, is no, it shouldn’t be. This is especially true at the highest level of academia, which is the stratum being targeted by the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, a program that aims to lure world-class academic talent to Canada in environmental sciences and technologies; natural resources and energy; health and related life sciences and technologies; and information and communications technologies. Excellence, not political correctness, should be the deciding factor when apportioning taxpayer money in this way.
According to Suzanne Fortier, head of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the reason for the lack of female appointees is a paucity of female applicants. Women aren’t heavily represented at senior levels in the fields of research involved.
If Ms. Robbins and her colleagues want to encourage equity, then encourage qualified women to apply for positions. But if those women don’t exist, or don’t want to apply, you can’t invent them or force them to do so. And you shouldn’t appoint less qualified women simply because they are female. Not only would such a move be a waste of taxpayer dollars, it would also stigmatize those female scientists who do happen to operate at the elite levels of scientific research as if they were affirmative-action cases.
As for the charge of gender bias against Mr. Harper’s government, it is bunk. This government desperately wants to appoint women to all sorts of places. To take but one example of many: From 2006-2008, a member of this editorial board served on the Judicial Appointments Committee for the Tax Court of Canada. The committee was told at the start of its mandate that the government wanted to appoint more women to the bench. But the body faced the same issue as the Research Council: Fewer women than men applied; most were not qualified; and, as a result, the majority of the recommendations ended up being men.
What was the government’s reaction? The committee was asked to re-examine a number of female applicants who’d initially been rejected, to make sure it hadn’t missed something that would entitle them to a recommendation. These applications were rejected again — because they simply weren’t up to par. Eventually, other women did make the grade, and were appointed to the court, but they got there based on their ability, not their gender.
Which is as it should be. Whether in a science lab, or in a courtroom, Canada’s elite talent should be picked on the basis of merit, not identity politics.
© 2010 The National Post Company. All rights reserved.
Why women were shut out of Canada’s science-star search
Industry Minister Tony Clement and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon hold a news conference in Ottawa on May 18, 2010.
Toronto — Thursday, May. 20, 2010
Government-appointed panel of female academics identify factors that led to all-male recruitment
It’s an image the federal government didn’t want you to see: 19 top-notch researchers recruited in an international talent search and not a woman among them.
In the weeks leading up to the announcement of Canada’s success in attracting academic stars, the event was shifted from Ottawa to campuses across the country in part to improve the optics, say individuals familiar with the planning.
Industry Minister Tony Clement also asked three leading female academics on friendly terms with the government to probe what happened. Their report, obtained by The Globe and Mail, finds no deliberate attempt to shut out women, but concludes the tight deadlines for the competition, the areas picked for research and a competition where candidates on the short list had only a 50 per cent chance of winning probably all worked against female candidates.
“ We didn’t know we had a problem. It just never occurred to us that it would be 19 men and zero women. ”— Industry Minister Tony Clement
“It was a combination of factors,” Mr. Clement said in an interview. “We didn’t know we had a problem. It just never occurred to us that it would be 19 men and zero women. I’ve got to say it was a total shock to me.”
In fact, the numbers were worse. Not only were there no women in the final 19 researchers selected as the first Canada Excellence Research Chairs, there were none in the short list of 36 proposals either.
The federal government has already faced a successful human-rights challenge over the lack of women awarded grants under its Canada Research Chair program. Women’s representation at the highest levels of research is a hot topic in Canada, and on campuses around the world, especially as their numbers increase at lower levels. How to improve women’s showing in future competitions for these new elite grants without sacrificing merit was the job given to the report’s authors. They delivered their advice at the end of April.
“We want to do it right,” Mr. Clement said. “I realized there was an issue. We went to some people who we could trust to look at the issue. They came up with sensible recommendations. We can implement those sensible recommendations.”
The authors – University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, head of the Council of Canadian Academies, and granting council head Suzanne Fortier – suggest five actions to improve female participation. These include introducing a “rising stars” category, as well as one as for “established leaders,” a move that would change the aim of a program billed as a magnet for top talent.
“You are still looking at excellence, it is just at a different stage of their career,” Mr. Clement said, conceding that this would in some respects parallel the existing Canada Research Chair program.
The $200-million federal recruitment drive offered $10-million over seven years to up to 20 researchers, and was directed at specific areas that fit the government’s innovation agenda. Those areas, and the specialties favoured such as work to help the auto industry, were geared to disciplines dominated by men, the study finds. It recommends an “open” category be considered.
The academic “old boys club,” also was a factor. With limited time to find and court top researchers, universities resorted to “informal processes” to find candidates, the study finds. “These informal outreach processes may have involved senior researchers identifying potential nominees from among their international peers,” it says.
Senior women also may be more reluctant than their male colleagues to move for personal reasons or to enter a competition where the odds of success were 2 to 1, the report says, citing U.S. studies.
At the University of Manitoba, vice-president of research Digvir Jayas says that’s exactly what they experienced. They did approach a highly qualified female candidate for their chair, but she withdrew her name for personal reasons, he said.
Putting fewer candidates on the short list and increasing the search time could encourage female participation, the study finds.
The low number of female senior researchers requires further study, the report says, suggesting the Council of Canadian Academies be given that task.
“Let’s make sure we can do things within the boundaries of merit that will give a possibility of finding meritorious women in the future,’ Mr. Clement said.