One of the hot topics in Ottawa over the past couple of months is the issue of increasing diversity among researchers. Top posts in academia are still disproportionately occupied by white dudes, and the federal minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, would like to change that by threatening institutions with a loss of research funding.
There’s no doubt about the nature of the problem. As in other countries, women and minorities have trouble making it up the career ladder in academia at the same rate as white males. The reasons for this are well-enough known that I probably needn’t recount them here (though if you really want a good summary try here and here). There was a point when one might reasonably have suspected that time would take care of the problem. Once PhD completion rates equalized (until the 1990s they still favored men) and female scientists began making their way up the career ladder, it might have been argued, the problem of representation at the highest levels would take care of itself. But it quite plainly hasn’t worked out that way and more systemic solutions need to be found. As for Indigenous scholars and scholars with disabilities, it’s pretty clear we still have a lot of pipeline issues to worry about and equalizing PhD completion rates, in addition to solving problems related to career progression, is a big challenge.
Part of what Ottawa is trying to do is to get institutions to take their responsibilities on career progression seriously by getting them each to commit to equity plans. Last October, the government announced that institutions without equity plans will become ineligible for new CERC awards; earlier this month, Kirsty Duncan attached the same condition to the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program.
(A quick reminder here about how the Chairs program works. There are two types of awards: Tier 1 awards for top researchers, worth $200,000/year for seven years, and Tier 2 awards for emerging researchers, worth $100,000/year for five years. There are 2000 awards in total, with roughly equal numbers of Tier 1 and Tier 2 awards. Each university gets an allocation of chairs based – more or less – on the share of tri-council funding its staff received, with a boost for smaller institutions. So, University of Toronto gets 256 chairs, Université Ste. Anne gets one, etc. Within that envelope institutions are free to distribute awards more or less as they see fit.)
The problem is, as the Minister well knows, all institutions already have equity plans and they’re not working. So she has attached a new condition: they also fix the demographic distribution of chair holders so that they “ensure the demographics of those given the awards reflect the demographics of those academics eligible to receive them” by 2019. It’s not 100% clear to me what this formulation means. I don’t believe it means that women must occupy 50% of all chairs; I am fairly sure that the qualifier “of those eligible to receive” means something along the lines of “women must occupy a percentage of Tier 1 chairs equal to their share of full professors, and of Tier 2 chairs equal to their share of associate and assistant professors”.
Even with those kind of caveats, reaching the necessary benchmarks in the space of 18-24 months will requires an enormous adjustment. The figure I’ve seen for major universities is that only 28% of CRCs are women. Given that only about 15-18% of chairs turn over in any given year, getting that up to the 40-45% range the benchmark implies by 2019 means that between 65 and 79% of all CRC appointments for the next two years will need to be female and probably higher than that for the Tier 1s. That’s certainly achievable, but it’s almost certain to be accompanied by a lot of general bitchiness among passed-over male candidates. Brace yourselves.
But while program rules allow Ottawa to use this policy tool to take this major step for gender equality, it will be harder to use it for other equity categories. Institutions don’t even really have a measure of how many of their faculty have disabilities, so setting benchmarks would be tricky. Indigenous scholars pose an even trickier problem. According to the formula used for female scholars, Indigenous scholars’ “share” of CRCs might be 1%, or about 20 nationally. The problem is that only five institutions (Alberta, British Columbia, McGill, Montreal, Toronto) have 100 or more CRCs and would thus be required to reserve a spot for an Indigenous scholar. An institution like (say) St. FX, which has only five chairs, would have a harder time. It can achieve gender equity simply by having two or three female chairs. But how would it achieve parity for Indigenous scholars? It’s unlikely it could be required to reserve one of its five (20%) spots to an Indigenous scholar.
Many institutions would obviously hire Indigenous faculty anyway, it’s just that the institutional allocations which form the base of this program’s structure make it difficult to achieve some of what Ottawa wants to achieve on equity and diversity.