Canada’s Excellence Research Chairs. All kinds of problematic.

The appointees for Canada’s Excellence Research Chairs program were announced this week. Of the 19 candidates, all were men. Furthermore, based on photos published, it appears that all but two are white.

Industry Minister Tony Clement has stated that the appointments were based on nominations from the universities and suggested that there is nothing the government can do about such things.

CBC’s The Current covered the issue yesterday, and one of the guests was Wendy Robbins, who was part of the team that in 2003 successfully launched a human rights complaint over the lack of women receiving Canada research Chairs. She takes on the argument that there is simply a lack of suitable candidates at the moment and this is a problem that will self correct as more women enter the sciences.

While U of A president Indira Samarasekera, who was tapped to look in to what happened, famously noted concern that more women than men are enrolled as undergraduates, the fact is as educations and careers advance, the numbers of women go down. This is as true for the sciences as it is for law as it is for business as it is for any traditionally male dominated field.

The lack of suitable candidates argument is old and tired. It suggests that this is just the way things are and nothing can be done. It implies that white men are just better at these things, otherwise there would be many women and people of colour to choose from. It fails to acknowledge the systemic discrimination that occurs over years.

Another factor may be the nature of the positions. The purpose of the program was to attract researchers to Canada. It has been noted that women were approached about being short-listed, but declined to have their names put forward. It is likely that the fact that women’s jobs, at every level, are less valued compared to men’s jobs. This means families are less likely to move for a woman’s job. This is one of the many factors in preventing women from advancing in their field.

There is another problematic element to this story. This program involves a huge amount of money going to very few people at a time when universities across the country are slashing budgets. The University of Alberta has raised tuition in several programs, instituted a new $290 fee for every undergraduate student, and required staff to take six furlough days (that is to say, unpaid days off) a year. Investment in research is important, but so is investment in teaching. Can universities who can barely afford to teach their students afford to pay huge salaries to a few ‘rockstar’ researchers?

This announcement reveals that there is still much to be done to support women and people of colour at every level of university.

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