Good News/Bad News Follow Up to Research Chairs story

First, the bad news: Not only were there no women in the final 19 researchers selected as the first Canada Excellence Research Chairs, there were none in the short list of 36 proposals either.

Now, some better news: The government asked three leading female academics to probe what happened. Their report and its recommendations have been obtained by the national media.

Lest one think that the Canadian government is acting purely out of concern for justice and the cause of fairness for women researchers, it’s worth noting that the federal government has already faced a successful human-rights challenge over the lack of women awarded grants under its Canada Research Chair program.

The report’s authors–University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, head of the Council of Canadian Academies, and granting council head Suzanne Fortier – make recommendations to improve female participation. These include introducing a “rising stars” category, as well as one as for “established leaders,” a move that would change the aim of a program billed as a magnet for top talent. They also recommend broadening the areas of the search and introducing an “open” category. Limited time was also a factor, they say. With very short deadlines, the old boys’ network was more likely to play a role in who was considered. They also recommend a shorter list of nominees as women may be reluctant to take part in a nomination process in which the odds of success are around 50%.

The full story is here.

10 thoughts on “Good News/Bad News Follow Up to Research Chairs story

  1. In the Globe&Mail today, two particularly dubious statements are made:
    (1) that “senior women may be more reluctant to move for personal reasons or to enter a competition where the odds of success were 2 to 1.” Euh… come again? Would any of you be where you are now if you were afraid of 2-to-1 odds?!? And how come it’s only women who are reluctant to move for personal reasons?! Don’t these men too have families to consider? Or are they just assumed not to consider their families? A previous article did mention that the selected researchers had rnegotiated spousal positions… And
    (2) on the one hand, that the probe done by three leading female academics “on friendly terms with the government” (!) found “no deliberate attempt to shut out women”; on the other hand, that “the academic ‘old boys club’ was a factor. With limited time to find and court top researchers, universities resorted to ‘informal processes’ to find candidates.”
    My opinion: it is time to redefine what can be meant by “deliberate” attempts to shut out women…

    Academia. UGH.

  2. Nice points, AM.

    I shudder to think what the ‘informal processes’ included. The committee phoned up friends to see who would come?

  3. 50% is a lot better than the 1.3% that faces PhD applicants in philosophy, and yet thousands of both men and women still apply. And why not? The risk is minimal, and the payoff tremendous. Well, until we start looking for jobs, anyway.

    I just don’t understand that 50% claim. 50% for a cushy academic position with massive funding is a good bet to take–and what do you lose if you don’t get it? Just the prize. You still have your job at your home institution. Why WOULDN’T anyone go for it? And why would women be more daunted than men? If they’re at the top of their fields, the only thing they need to worry about are selection committees like this one.

    Adèle: I don’t think the spousal hires were negotiated. My impression from the article was that they were offered spousal hires to sweeten the pot. Which makes that claim just as nonsensical as the Globe’s claim that there are few women in engineering or science (never mind that there was only one engineer hired, and seven hires in life sciences).

    Finally, I can’t help but lulz at the mention of an informal review panel composed of female figures “friendly” to the government. What does that mean, that they approve of the hiring committee before they even review it, and are just going to give speculative reasons for the (purported) lack of women at the applicant stage?

  4. The odds weren’t 2-1 anyway, as described. The short list was 32 and there were 19 research chairs appointed.

    I do think the time issue is important, though not because of its effect on the candidates. I think likely that played a huge role in the decisions of the search committee. We know that when rushed, decision makers are more likely to be subject to bias. “Hire someone excellent fast!” You’re right to worry that this would have resulted in phone calls to friends. Of course that was part of the “informal process.” Institutions without candidates presumably risked losing out. That also makes for bad decision making. This happens all too often when funding for universities is announced with short deadlines. It’s high stakes and rushed and that seems to me to almost guarantee an unreflective decision making process. This is the result.

  5. I am sure that we are all very aware of how sex bias operates in the sciences, but I read this article “How the sex bias prevails” this morning and it seemed pertinant to this discussion. The article describes both scientific research and anecdotal evidence from scientists who experienced the discipline as both perceived men and perceived women. It is especially interesting when thinking about “the old boys club” and how this affects who gets on the short list.

    The comments on the linked Globe and Mail article are depressing. How many times will we hear “did anyone consider that maybe men are just better at science?” Grr, as if we have not heard (and considered) that before. Of course, the posters would probably proclaim that they are not sexist.

  6. Another editorial on the subject at the Globe:

    According to Sumitra Rajagopalan, “This rhetoric – which, interestingly, came from women’s studies departments, not science – reveals how out of touch these critics are with today’s women scientists and their fields. Any systemic bias that might have once existed in science is finished. If anything, science and engineering departments the world over now actively seek female candidates for open positions – and many women find it patronizing. The notions of “equity” and “excellence” are simply incompatible.”

    I think she missed the point.

  7. Michel, interesting article. I think it is odd how often the ““equity” and “excellence” are simply incompatible.” line gets used. I seriously cannot understand why this would be. As far as I can tell, it does not follow unless you are already assuming that those who are underrepresented are somehow inferior at the task in question. I agree that she seems to have missed the point.

    Also, I think she is right that there is way too much instrumentalization of research going on at the moment (I hate the view that research is good when it results in some product). But recognizing that as a problem is not incompatible with also recognizing that the lack of representation of women is a problem.

  8. This remark is interesting:

    Any systemic bias that might have once existed in science is finished. If anything, science and engineering departments the world over now actively seek female candidates for open positions

    Even if it is true that ‘the world over’ women are sought, that does not mean they will be hired. For data on how implicit bias can win out over hiring intentions, see jender’s piece here:

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