Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Critiquing Canada's Research Culture: Social, Cultural, and Political Restraints on Women's University Careers

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Critiquing Canada's Research Culture: Social, Cultural, and Political Restraints on Women's University Careers

Article excerpt


The United Nations reports that "women are starkly underrepresented among researchers worldwide" (The World's Women 2010, 68): women are half the world's population, constitute a majority of tertiary level students in most countries, hold 44% of PhD's, but "constitute only slightly more than a quarter [29%] of all researchers." (1) Researchers are defined as "professionals engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems, as well as in the management of these projects." (2) At the top research rank--full professor or grade A researcher--statistics vary from around 10% to over 30% within Europe alone, but "a profound gender imbalance is still observed in a vast majority of countries" (She Figures 2012, unpaged). This pattern of gender imbalance exists also in national parliaments: the world average for women's representation is 20% (Women in National Parliaments, July 2012).

Statistics for Canada are similar to international averages. Women are half the population, and, for a generation, have been half or more of graduating university students, with the percentage of PhD's earned by women rising from 24.2% in 1981 to 44.2% in 2008 (CAUT Almanac 2011-12, Table 3.20, p. 39). Yet men still hold over three-quarters of full professorships and top research positions in universities and affiliated teaching hospitals. The latest data (for 2010) show that women constitute only 23.4% of Canada's full professors. Furthermore, men are three-quarters of Canada's Members of Parliament, who set the budget for the country's major research councils--the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Two recent, billion-dollar, federal government research programs in Canada, focused mainly on science, technology, and engineering, have highlighted and exacerbated gender inequities. Of 2,000 millennium Canada Research Chairs (CRC's), 25.1% overall have been awarded to women, with the figure for the higher Tier 1 level CRC's falling to 17.1%. The new Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC's), which offer some of the most generous research conditions in the world, have an even worse record: the inaugural appointments, made in 2010, went to 19 men, 0 women--in hockey language, a "shut out." Responding to a national outcry, the government turned to the Council of Canadian Academies, an arm's-length federal think tank, which assembled an Expert Panel on Women in University Research. This group (of which I am a member) prepared a report entitled Strengthening Canada's Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension (to be released online in October 2012). With the old myths of women's "natural" inferiority having been dealt a death-blow in the Larry Summers debacle at Harvard University in 2005 and laid to rest in the massive report entitled Beyond Bias and Barriers, the Canadian panel was generally free to set aside biology-is-destiny debates about women's and men's brains to focus on the dozens of social, cultural, and political factors that are still operative over the life-course of individuals and in postsecondary institutions and their affiliated teaching hospitals, where most of Canada's research takes place.

A comprehensive literature review points to multiple, interconnected restraints, which may be grouped into four main categories.

1. "upstream" (home and school) factors, such as family support and teachers' encouragement during childhood and teen years when education and career aspirations are forming, influenced by such things as class, racialization, and gender, often leaving girls with less confidence in their abilities, especially in math, even when their achievement scores are the same as boys';

2. social (community) factors, such as gender stereotypes or schemas, unequal access to social capital, unfair divisions of labour at home and at work, wage gaps, lack of childcare, and uncoordinated K-12 school hours and work hours;

3. …

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