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Opinion: U of T moves forward on gender equity — but more needs to be done

Weighing recent appointments against inequitable history, culture
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MILLY HONG/THE VARSITY
MILLY HONG/THE VARSITY

As part of a larger, ongoing effort to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion across U of T, numerous women have been appointed to the position of dean in a number of faculties. These recent appointments include Ellie Hisama, who will be joining the Faculty of Music this summer; Jutta Brunee at the Faculty of Law; and Rhonda McEwen at UTM. 

However, despite the efforts that are being made to confront underrepresentation of women in leadership positions at U of T, women in academia still continue to be affected by gender biases. 

Before we begin to confront gender inequities, we must first understand that these inequities go far beyond obvious discrimination — they are a systemic problem deeply embedded into the structure of academic institutions. 

In a 2019 article for the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, researchers analyzed public sector salary disclosure data from Ontario universities from 1996–2016 and found that gender gaps increased as the rank increased. According to a CBC article reviewing the gender pay gap, this issue is referred to as the “leaky pipeline” problem, stemming from women leaving academia before men because they either lack role models in higher positions or they have inadequate support as parents. 

A report by the U of T Provostial Advisory Group on gender pay equity found that women only accounted for 36 per cent of tenured and tenure-stream faculty in the 2015–2016 academic year. The report further found that women earn 1.3 per cent less than men after experience, field of study, and other relevant factors were controlled for. Following this report, U of T increased the base salary for more than 800 women by 1.3 per cent in 2019 to address the pay gap between men and women in tenure-stream faculty. 

However, there are still numerous other gender inequities at U of T. Melanie Woodin, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, said in an interview with U of T News that she has “significantly increased the hiring of women into assistant professor positions, but they are still underrepresented as full professors.” This inevitably prompts the question: why aren’t women adequately represented in professor positions? 

“Often, there are a series of relatively small challenges that add up,” Woodin said, noting that “women conduct a disproportionate amount of service, including service that is not formally recognized such as informal mentorship.” She continued, “That work is often really time consuming but doesn’t factor into promotion decisions.”

Alexandra Gillespie, who started her term as the first woman principal of UTM in July 2020, said in an interview with U of T News, “You can’t stop saying that this is an issue.” She further noted, “At U of T, we’re always talking about excellence. But if you look at the upper echelons of any organization and see that its leadership is of one [particular] race, gender, sexuality etc. – that’s not excellence, that’s just privilege.”

The reality is that barriers against women in academia stem from a long historical pattern of patriarchal oppression of women. This oppression has resulted in a prejudice against women that questions their ability to succeed in higher education. 

U of T only started allowing the enrolment of a limited number of women in 1884. Even then, women’s right to higher education remained a considerably controversial issue. Despite this major step forward, gender inequality still pervaded the university as women were not allowed to stand at bulletin boards, use the libraries, or browse the catalogues. Furthermore, they were required to get the president’s permission to join clubs. 

It wasn’t until almost a century later, in 1972, that women were allowed to become members of Hart House. The 1970s also saw some senior positions beginning to be filled by women. In 1973, historian Jill Ker Conway was named as the first woman vice-president at U of T. Conway also established U of T’s first history course on women’s history. 

Although gender equity efforts have increased significantly at U of T since the 1970s, it is quite clear that there is still more to be done. Resources, time, and funding need to be allocated to understand and confront the historical and continuous gender biases at U of T. 

One particular issue concerns women in STEM who identify as racialized and LBGTQ+. They confront issues of racism and discrimination that hinder their ability to succeed at academic institutions such as U of T. Intersectional barriers such as these need to be addressed if we are to solve the gender gap. Solutions that are not intersectional aren’t really solutions at all. 

By addressing these issues and ensuring gender equity amongst higher ranks at U of T, we can create an environment where girls and women feel comfortable to not only contribute to academia, but also succeed in doing so. 

Shernise Mohammed-Ali is a second-year neuroscience, psychology, and English student at Victoria College. She is an associate comment editor.