By Ben Crase

Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan recently published a piece in the Globe & Mail defending her new equity and diversity provisions to the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program as part of the federal government’s “unapologetic approach to building an inclusive and fair Canada.” The Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan for the CRC Program initiated the development of a strategy to promote “adherence to equity targets,” indicating that institutions that fail to meet targets may lose their chairs.

The implementation of these new equity rules last fall came as statistics were released showing that women filled only 30% of Canada Research Chairs, a disappointment Duncan openly shared at a recent meeting of university presidents.

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Although the approach has been subject to both praise and criticism in the media, what is most concerning is the government’s seeming disregard to take an informed strategy in advancing its equity agenda. The federal government has opted to pressure universities to take swift action. Fearing retribution, universities will inevitably meet their quotas by any means necessary and the government will be able to declare victory, but this will not mean that the existing barriers were actually addressed.

The proclivity to ignore large bodies of research investigating the causes of these disparities in favour of popular narratives to legitimate the proposed course of action will inevitably result in policy destined to fail at achieving its intended purpose, and only undermining efforts to redress existing disparities as a result.

The Problem and Its Causes

Advocating the government’s new position in her article, Duncan references various personal experiences from her career as a researcher to highlight the sexism plaguing academia, most acutely in STEM fields. While the instances she describes are reprehensible without question, personal experiences form opinion, not policy.

The rhetorical tact of emphasizing the personal experiences of individuals is often used by those arguing that their stories show the “systemic barriers” faced by individuals. Being critical of willfully accepting such phraseology should not be interpreted as an ignorant unwillingness to recognize the existence of inequality (as is often the case). Rather it suggests a sense of skepticism because defining problems as ‘systemic’ is facile, implying the need to take immediate and radical action instead of building a nuanced understanding that can constructively inform policy interventions.

Unfortunately, deeper reflection seems to be of little interest to the government. Quoting an editorial in Nature, Duncan highlights that “women scientists are still paid less, promoted less frequently, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave research than similarly qualified men.” Rather than consider what might contribute to these disparities, Duncan opts to use this as proof-positive that “science is still sexist.”

Without going beyond the headlines, it is not surprising that quotas are seen as both necessary and the best means to facilitate greater diversity in the CRC program. In reality, imposing quotas only create the facade that you are achieving your broader objectives without addressing the underlying barriers that the government actually should be designing policy to address.

Echoing Duncan’s position, Canada’s recently released Fundamental Science Review (coined the Naylor Report) suggests that the “ministers responsible should consider hard equity targets and quotas [for CRC and CERC] where persistent and unacceptable disparities exist, and agencies and institutions are clearly not meeting reasonable objectives.” The cause of these disparities, the Report suggests, “is the potential for conscious and unconscious biases of peer reviewers to influence their assessments.”

Beyond Systemic Barriers

While officials continue to emphasize ‘discriminatory’ selection processes and universities adjust policies accordingly, there is clear evidence that gender discrimination alone does not explain faculty gender disparities such as those found in the government’s CRC program. Ironically, the article cited by the Naylor Report emphasizing the pernicious role of bias clearly recognizes that recent meta-analysis on sex discrimination “suggest that some of these claims are no longer valid” and the academy can be described as being in a state of “gender neutrality.” If not the result of systemic discrimination, how else could gender disparities be explained?

The expansive body of research exploring how decisions freely made by women contribute to the ‘leaky pipeline’ of female academics presents a powerful array of explanatory considerations to suggest that both biology and social factors play a role. Meta-analyses of gender differences in vocational interests, work preferences, spatial ability and personality traits and their relation to work all indicate that attrition is the result of a confluence of factors and continued insistence on attributing it to a single cause is misleading.

The Naylor report’s singular focus on intrinsic bias and willingness to dismiss all other considerations wholesale is concerning to put it mildly. Doubling down on implicit and unconscious bias as the lynchpin of the problem, only adds the current case to the laundry list of policy discussions that have incorrectly marshalled implicit association test (IAT) findings to propagate politically motivated opinions (see here and here for further comment).

Conceding that the elusive bias boogeyman lies behind any equity concerns does not provide answers, but only grants the government carte blanche to take whatever actions deemed necessary and suitable to remediate the situation.

If the answer to explaining gender disparities is in fact more complex, why do we continue to cling to old attitudes of discriminatory practices as the cause that must be challenged?

In large part, the aversion to addressing such considerations is a result of the never-ending nature vs. nurture debate over gender differences. The reluctance to move beyond socialization arguments is seemingly the result of a fear that ceding any ground to biological considerations paints you as a determinist; someone who believes policy has no role to play in diminishing current disparities. Of course, this is far from the truth.

The retreat to opposing ideological camps inevitably frames opposing positions as irreconcilable; you are either endorsing reverse discrimination or being blind to your privilege. A more clear-eyed assessment demonstrates that there is in fact middle ground where clear progress can be made. Rather than contributing to the fruitless debate, existing research recognizing differences between men and women still provides a suitable point of departure to better ensure that Canadian universities maximize the actualization of women’s talent in all fields.

What next?

The most obvious area necessitating further consideration is the role of childbearing and its impact in academic career pathways. The tenure structure of academia requires women to be most dedicated to making their intellectual contribution at the exact time fertility decisions become most acute. The disincentives to having children early in one’s academic career clearly have an outsized impact on women, which they recognize when it comes to decisions about pursuing research-intensive positions and having a family. The consequences of this barrier are exacerbated in STEM fields where women are already found in fewer numbers. While Canadian universities and the tri-council have adapted accordingly allowing for pauses to the tenure clock, better parental leave provisions and granting career interruptions for childcare, the success of these efforts require further consideration.

The government could also consider more constructive policy approaches given our differing understandings of men and women. Recognizing the ample literature discussing the premium women place on flexible work conditions, the government could take a leadership role in supporting researchers who value work-life flexibility. As has been suggested elsewhere, one innovative policy suggestion aimed at increasing female faculty numbers could be the creation of part-time tenure-stream positions.

What is clear from the research discussed is that many questions remain unanswered and only more research will answer them. Recent advances in our understanding of cognitive sex differences highlight our ongoing capacity to continue generating dramatic new insights.

The imperative of doing something in politics often overruns consideration of whether the correct course of action is being taken. The widely popular “because it’s 2015” sloganeering du jour might make the current course of action popular, but the likely outcomes should only engender further concern. Satisfied with targets being met, the government might be happy to declare a superficial victory without addressing the underlying challenges. Alternatively, if the shortcomings of the current approach are recognized publicly, the government will be compelled to take an even more dramatic course of action. As evidenced by the escalation of its current approach, ineffective policy seems to only result in more intrusive incarnations.