Science, women and gender in Canada (part 1 of 2)

Titled Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension; The Expert Panel on Women in University Research, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) released their assessment on Nov. 21, 2012, approximately 20 months after the incident which tangentially occasioned it (from the Strengthening … webpage) Note: I have added a reference and link to a report on CERC (Canada Excellence Research Chairs) gender issues in the following excerpt,

After the notable absence of female candidates in the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program, the Minister of Industry, in March 2010, struck an ad-hoc panel to examine the program’s selection process. The ad-hoc panel found that the lack of female representation was not due to active choices made during the CERC selection process. [Dowdeswell, E., Fortier, S., & Samarasekera, I. (2010). Report to the Minister of Industry of the Ad Hoc Panel on CERC Gender Issues. Ottawa (ON):Industry Canada.] As a result, the Council of Canadian Academies received a request to undertake an assessment of the factors that influence university research careers of women, both in Canada and internationally.

To conduct the assessment, the Council convened an expert panel of 15 Canadian and international experts from diverse fields, which was chaired by Dr. Lorna Marsden, President emeritus and Professor, York University.

For anyone unfamiliar with the CERC programme,

The Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) Program awards world-class researchers up to $10 million over seven years to establish ambitious research programs at Canadian universities.

My commentary is primarily focused on the assessment and not the preceding report from the ad hoc panel, as well, I am not commenting on every single aspect of the report. I focus on those elements of the report that caught my attention.

There is much to appreciate in this assessment/report unfortunately the cover image cannot be included. By choosing a photograph, the designer immediately entered shark-infested waters, metaphorically speaking. From a semiotic perspective, photographs are a rich and much studied means of criticism. Having a photograph of an attractive, middle-aged white woman with blonde hair (a MILF, depending on your tastes)  who’s surrounded by ‘adoring’ students (standing in for her children?) on the cover of this assessment suggests an obliviousness to nuance that is somewhat unexpected. Happily, the image is not reflective of the content.

The report lays out the basis for this assessment,

There are many reasons for concern at the lack of proportional representation of women in senior positions in all facets of our society, including politics, law, medicine, the arts, business, and academia. The underrepresentation of women in any of these areas is a concern considering the fundamental Canadian values of equality, fairness, and justice, as outlined in the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Employment Equity Act. This report focuses on women in academia: the 11,064 women with PhDs who are employed full-time in degree-granting institutions. In comparison, there are 22,875 men in this category (see Table 3.1).1 Besides educating millions of students, these researchers and innovators are working to address the major issues Canada faces in the 21st century, including climate change, demographic shifts, healthcare, social inequality, sustainable natural resources management, cultural survival, as well as the role Canada plays as an international actor. These contributions are in addition to the basic, or knowledge discovery, research that is one of the main duties of academic researchers. In the knowledge economy, a talent pool of Canada’s top thinkers, researchers and innovators is needed to help secure and build Canada’s economic edge. The wider the pool is from which to draw, the more perspectives, experiences, and ideas will be brought to the creative process. [emphasis mine] Arguments for fully including women in research careers range from addressing skills shortages and increasing innovation potential by accessing wider talent pools, to greater market development, stronger financial performance, better returns on human resource investments, and developing a better point from which to compete in the intensifying global talent race. (p. 15 PDF; p. xiii print)

I appreciate the reference to fundamental values in Canadian society as it is important but I suspect the portion I’ve highlighted contains the seeds of an argument that is far more persuasive for power brokers. It was a very smart move.

It is possible to skim this report by simply reading the executive summary and reading the Key Messages page included after each chapter heading, save the final chapter. They’ve done a good job of making this report easy to read if you don’t have too much time but prefer to view the complete assessment rather than an abridged version.

The Chapter 1 Key Messages are,

Chapter Key Messages

• While many reports have focused specifically on women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers, this assessment employs comparative analyses to examine the career trajectories of women researchers across a variety of disciplines. The Panel was able to respond to the charge using a combination of research methods, but their analyses were sometimes hindered by a paucity of key data sets.

• In an attempt not to simply repeat numerous studies of the past on women in research careers, the Panel used a life course model to examine the data from a new perspective. This conceptual framework enabled the Panel to consider the multidimensional nature of human lives as well as the effects of external influences on the career trajectories of women researchers.

• Women are now present in all areas of research, including those areas from which they have previously been absent. Over time, institutions have become more inclusive, and Canadian governments have created policies and legislation to encourage more gender equity. Collective bargaining has contributed to this process. Clearly, the advancement of women in research positions relies on the contributions of individuals, institutions and government.

• Since the 1970s, there has been major progress such that women have been obtaining PhDs and entering the academy as students and faculty at increasing rates. However, women remain underrepresented at the highest levels of academia, as demonstrated by their low numbers in the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program, and their absence from the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program. There is considerable room for improvement in women’s representation as faculty.

• Higher education research and development funding has nearly doubled in the past decade. However, the amount of funding allocated to core grants and scholarship programs varies among the tri-council agencies [SSHRC, Social Science and Humantities Research Council; NSERC, Natural Science and Engineering Research Council; and CIHR, Canadian Institutes of Health Research], with the majority of funds available to researchers sponsored by NSERC and CIHR. This pattern is generally replicated in the Canada Research Chairs and the Canada Excellence Research Chairs programs. As noted in the 2003 Human Rights Complaint regarding the Canada Research Chairs program, women are least represented in the areas of research that are the best funded.  (p. 33 PDF; p. 3 print) [emphasis mine]

This panel in response to the issue of women being least represented in the best funded areas of research elected to do this,

The Panel noted that many reports have focused on women in science, technology, and engineering research careers (due in part to the fact that women have been significantly underrepresented in these fields) yet relatively little attention has been paid to women researchers in the humanities, social sciences, and education. This is despite the fact that 58.6 per cent of doctoral students in these disciplines are women (see Chapter 3), and that their research contributions have profoundly affected the study of poverty, violence, the welfare state, popular culture, and literature, to note only a few examples. Considering this, the Panel’s assessment incorporates a comparative, interdisciplinary analysis, with a focus on the broader category of women in university research. In order to identify the areas where women are the most and least represented, Panellists compiled data and research that describe where Canadian female researchers are — and are not — in terms of both discipline and rank. Where possible, this study also analyzes the situation of women researchers outside of academia so as to paint a clearer picture of female researchers’ career trajectories. (pp. 37/8 PDF; pp. 7/8 print) [emphases mine]

Bringing together all kinds of research where women are both over and under represented and including research undertaken outside the academic environment was thoughtful. I also particularly liked this passage,

American research suggests that holding organizational leaders accountable for implementing equity practices is a particularly effective way of enhancing the diversity of employees (Kalev et al., 2006), indicating that reporting and monitoring mechanisms are key to success. [emphasis mine] The Panel observed that meeting these commitments requires the proper implementation of accountability mechanisms, such as reporting and monitoring schemes. (p. 44 PDF; p. 14 print)

Juxtaposing the comment about leaders being held accountable for equity practices and the  comment I emphasized earlier ” … a talent pool of Canada’s top thinkers, researchers and innovators is needed to help secure and build Canada’s economic edge …” could suggest an emergent theme about leadership and the current discourse about innovation.

To get a sense of which disciplines and what research areas are rewarded within the Canada Research Chair programme read this from the assessment,

Similarly, while 80 per cent of Canada Research Chairs are distributed among researchers in NSERC and CIHR disciplines, SSHRC Chairs represent only 20 per cent of the total — despite the fact that the majority (60 per cent) of the Canadian professoriate come from SSHRC disciplines (Grant & Drakich, 2010). Box 1.1 describes the gendered implications of this distribution, as well as the history of the program. (p. 45 PDF; p. 15 print)

What I find intriguing here isn’t just the disparity. 60% of the researchers are chasing after 20% of the funds (yes, physical sciences are more expensive but those percentages still seem out of line), but that social sciences and the humanities are not really included in the innovation rubric except here in this assessment. Still, despite the inclusion of the visual and performing arts in the State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 report issued by the CCA in Sept. 2013 (part 1 of my commentary on that assessment is in this Dec. 28, 2012 posting; part 2 of my commentary is in this Dec. 28, 2012 posting) there is no mention of them in this assessment/report of gender and science.

I did particularly like how the panel approached data collection and analysis,

Coming from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, Panellists brought with them a range of methodological expertise and preferences. Through a combination of quantitative and qualitative data, the Panel was able to identify and analyze factors that affect the career trajectories of women researchers in Canada (see Appendix 1 for full details). In addition to an extensive literature review of the national and international research and evidence related to the topic, the Panel collected information in the form of data sets and statistics, heard from expert witnesses, conducted interviews with certain stakeholders from academia and industry, and analyzed interview and survey results from their secondary analysis of Canada Research Chairs data (see Appendix 5 for a full description of methodology and results). Together, these methods contributed to the balanced approach that the Panel used to understand the status of women in Canadian university research careers.

In addition, the Panel took an innovative approach to painting a more vibrant picture of the experience of women professors by incorporating examples from academic “life-writing.” Life-writing is the generic name given to a variety of forms of personal narrative — autobiography, biography, personal essays, letters, diaries, and memoirs. Publishing personal testimony is a vital strategy for marginalized groups to claim their voices and tell their own stories, and academic women’s life-writing adds vital evidence to a study of women in university careers (Robbins et al., 2011). The first study of academic life-writing appeared in the U.S. in 2008 (Goodall, 2008); as yet, none exists for Canada.16 Recognizing the benefits of this approach, which focuses on the importance of women’s voices and stories, the Panel chose to weave personal narrative from women academics throughout the body of the report to illuminate the subject matter. As with the data gleaned from the Panel’s secondary analysis of Canada Research Chairs data, these cases highlight the experience of an articulate and determined minority of women who are prepared and positioned to speak out about structural and personal inequities. More comprehensive surveys are required to establish the precise extent of the problems they so effectively illustrate. (pp. 49/50 PDF; pp. 19/20 print)

Nice to note that they include a very broad range of information as evidence. After all, evidence can take many forms and not all evidence can be contained in a table of data nor is all data necessarily evidence. That said there were some other issues with data and evidence,

Despite the extensive literature on the subject, the Panel identified some data limitations. While these limitations made some analyses difficult, the Panel was able to effectively respond to the charge by using the combination of research methods described above. Data limitations identified by the Panel include:

• relatively little research specific to the Canadian context;

• lack of longitudinal data;

• relatively few studies (both quantitative and qualitative) dealing with fields such as the humanities and social sciences;

• lack of data on diversity in Canadian academia, including intersectional data;

• lack of comprehensive data and evidence from the private and government sectors; and

• difficulty in comparing some international data due to differences in disciplinary classifications. (p. 50 PDF; p. 20 print)

I think this does it for part 1 of my commentary.

1 thought on “Science, women and gender in Canada (part 1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Science, women and gender in Canada (part 2 of 2) « FrogHeart

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