Why 30% more female professors still isn’t good enough

The stats are promising, but Canadian universities are far from gender equity
VANCOUVER, BC - February 5th, 2015 - UBC professor Sara Harris interacts with students in her Intro to Environmental Sciences class at the main campus of the University of British Columbia on February 5th, 2015 (PHOTO BY SIMON HAYTER FOR MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE) Photograph by Simon Hayter
Photograph by Simon Hayter
Photograph by Simon Hayter

Statistics Canada last week released new data hinting at an improvement in the gender balance of the country’s academic community. Indeed, there are 30 per cent more women working as full professors in Canada compared to seven years ago. But ask individuals striving for a more equitable post-secondary system about the seemingly positive statistics and they all say the same thing: We’re not there yet.

The new numbers reflect an ongoing increase of women in higher ranking academic teaching jobs. In addition to more female full professors, the number of women employed as associate professors increased by 20 per cent since 2010-2011 academic year. While men still make up the majority of full-time academic staff, their numbers at the full professor rank grew far slower—just 6.5 per cent—over the same period.

But experts say universities still aren’t doing enough to incorporate policies that promote equity into their long-term strategies. It’s crucial to keep pushing for equity policies that yield results, says Sioban Nelson, the University of Toronto’s vice provost academic programs.

“If the pressure goes off, it can have a rebound effect where people say, ‘Well, we hired two women last year so we’re good. We don’t need to do any more,’” she explains. “It’s important that any institutional initiative is for the long haul and we ensure that we promote it, support it and measure it.”

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As the adviser to the provost on equity and diversity at the University of Victoria, Grace Wong Sneddon helps ensure that the school takes an equitable approach to faculty recruitment, including facilitating workshops to address potential bias before the hiring process even begins.

“I’ve been able to embed equity and diversity into every training so it becomes the norm, not the add-on,” she says.

Progress on this front has been ongoing, but slow. A nearly decade-old Canadian Association of University Teachers review noted the steady growth of the number of women in university teaching roles since 1984. But for women to advance to senior roles, they need to overcome systemic, often unconscious biases that permeate the academy, from classrooms to hiring committees.  “You can even see bias in reference letters,” Wong Sneddon says. “Men get qualifiers such as ‘exemplary scholarship,’ whereas women get qualifiers like ‘working hard.’”

Further, for women who are Indigenous or visible minorities, the glass ceiling might more accurately be called a “concrete ceiling,” as University of Alberta professor Malinda Smith noted in a 2016 study of administrative leadership. Pam Foster, the director of research and political action at the Canadian Association of University Teachers, notes the new statistics on women’s progress don’t give a complete answer for how far universities have actually come, especially in terms of categories beyond gender.  “Neither universities nor StatsCan under this study are collecting the data they need to understand what diversity and inclusion is within universities and colleges,” Foster says.

Foster raises concern about what she calls the “ghettoziation” of women in certain disciplines while they still struggle to make gains in traditionally male-dominated faculties like engineering. The falling number of entry-level teaching jobs, at the associate professor level or lower, also worries her: as academic jobs shift toward precarious, contract-based work, Foster says it’s important to consider whether women are disproportionately disadvantaged.

Data demonstrating some progress—but ultimately, still a gap—is “a wake-up call,” Foster says. At the University of Toronto, Nelson agrees that the status quo still isn’t good enough. “I don’t think anyone can be complacent about this. I don’t think we’re where we need to be at all,” she says. “Unless we are committed and keep putting energy into this, it is just lip service.”