From where I sit - Team Testosterone 19 - equity 0

July 29, 2010

In 2008, the Canadian government announced an ambitious programme to recruit the best and brightest researchers from around the world via 20 Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC), each funded to the tune of C$10 million (£6.23 million) over seven years.

May saw the announcement of the first group of 19, comprising scientific and medical specialists drawn from across Europe and the US. While the government and the universities making these appointments were quick to trumpet their success, others have expressed concern at the marked lack of gender diversity among the successful candidates - all 19 positions went to men.

Perhaps it is not beyond the realm of statistical probability to arrive at such a clean sweep for Team Testosterone, but these results have raised eyebrows (plucked and unplucked).

The Canadian Association of University Teachers launched an immediate critique, pointing to the potential for the programme to divert scarce resources from current researchers, and calling the absence of female appointments "unconscionable". Similar gender inequality in the earlier domestic competition for Canada Research Chairs, it said, "led to a human rights complaint and a settlement in which the government agreed to uphold its obligation to ensure that its programs are gender-equitable".

In true Canadian fashion, a panel of inquiry made up of three female academics - Indira Samarasekera, president of the University of Alberta, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, head of the Council of Canadian Academies, and Suzanne Fortier, head of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council - was asked to investigate.

Its conclusion? There was nothing systemic about the men-only appointments - although more women have been entering the sciences, few have attained stratospheric status. It is just a matter of waiting a few more years for the balance to shift, or perhaps of instituting a parallel "rising-star" category to encourage diversity by targeting researchers earlier in their careers, the academics said.

The media response has been highly politicised. The right-wing National Post newspaper mocked the scholar, Wendy Robbins, who made the previous human rights complaint and said she "felt kicked in the stomach" by news of the all-male appointments. Where, asks the Post columnist, do liberal papers "find all these women, gays and visible minorities who supposedly spend day and night enduring endless blows in the midsection from Stephen Harper's Conservatives?"

Oh, and did I mention that most of the appointees are white?

The whole discussion has been depressingly predictable, and I would like to find a ray of hope indicating that the selection process was as benignly explicable as the investigative panel suggested.

So if you are a leading female researcher who was courted by a Canadian university but opted to stay put, please get in touch: it would be comforting to know that the total absence of female candidates - not just in the finalists selected but in the whole group put forward in the competition - sprang at least in part from an effort on the part of European and US universities to retain their girl power, rather than from a case of cultural bad timing by the Canadian government.

And if you belong to one of the other minority groups the Post is so concerned will dilute excellence by demanding equality, I would like to hear from you, too. Just give me some evidence to suggest that the gap isn't still as wide as the CERC outcome suggests.

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