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Report: obstacles remain for women in academia

Recognition and equal pay remain stumbling blocks with no easy solution
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The Council of Canadian Academies issued a report last week detailing the challenges that continue to confront women working in academia.

The CCA, an independent, not-for-profit organization that conducts assessments to inform public policy with experts from Canada and abroad, was asked to examine factors that continue to hinder research careers of women. The report, entitled “Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension,” was commissioned by the federal Ministry of Industry last fall, after 19 Canada Research Chair positions and nearly $10 million in funding were granted exclusively to male researchers.

“It really stands out, and I said: ‘where are the women?’” remarked former Minister of Industry Tony Clement in the aftermath of the episode.

The 252-page study found that a number of problems continued to limit the progress of women’s academic careers, and concluded that Canada is not fulfilling its commitments to gender equity particularly in the higher education sector.

On the surface, some progress appears to have been made. In the 1960s, women made up only a small fraction of the student body at Canadian universities. By the late 1980s, the trend had reversed. There were more full-time undergraduate female students than male. During this time, women also made inroads as professors and instructors, breaking into fields that had traditionally been male-dominated.

The CCA report, however, describes some troubling shortcomings. The findings include a slight but persistent salary gap between male and female professors, negative biases in recruitment and evaluation, tenure systems that can be unaccomodating to women who take time off for childcare, self-reported lower levels of self-confidence in physical sciences, computer science, engineering and mathematics, and a lack of female role models in some fields. The study also found that in general, the higher the rank or position, the less likely it was to be filled by a female researcher or administrator.

“The issue itself is a multifaceted one that is affected by social, cultural, economic, institutional, and political factors and contexts,” said Dr. Lorna R. Marsden, president emeritus and professor at York University.

Marsden chaired the panel of 15 Canadian and international experts from a number of different academic fields who ultimately produced the report. To conduct the study, the panel met over the course of 18 months and explored a range of disciplines. The study used a “life course model” that examined critical factors that might impact career paths, starting from early years through post-secondary education.

According to the report, challenges begin early in a prospective researcher’s life: children are taught stereotypes that define acceptable roles, and might consequently lack knowledge about potential career paths. Those that defy stereotypes about acceptable careers might find that they lack role models and mentors as women. In many regards, the situation in Canada remains similar to other advanced nations.

The panel noted that several past reports have focused on women’s progress in science, technology and engineering research careers because women have traditionally been underrepresented in these fields. The report also notes that little attention has been paid to women researchers in the humanities, social sciences, and education, where they comprise 58.6 per cent of doctoral students, and have made major contributions to the study of poverty, violence, popular culture and literature, among many other topics.

“The face of academia is changing, and institutions can adapt to this new diversity or continue to lose talented researchers,” the report cautions.

Solutions  proposed in the report include offering more long-term contract positions to ensure job security and stability for women. Part-time positions and re-entry would also help transition new parents back into a career in academia. Allowing work from home, offering work time on grants, reduced workload options, providing child care and ensuring fairness when hiring committees are also floated as possible solutions to the issue.

“The [old] model boxes in men as well as women. If we want to have excellent people who are good teachers, sensitive and supportive of their students, they need to be more than uni-dimensional. They need to have an outside life,” said Donna Lero from the University of Guelph,

Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, told The Globe and Mail that “it is too early to speculate on what actions the government will take to address this important issue,” but noted the percentage of Canada research chairs held by women has doubled to 26 per cent since 2001.