Science minister mulls forcing universities to attract more female researchers

Duncan scolds universities on gender equity

OTTAWA — Canada’s science minister says universities aren’t doing the heavy lifting to appoint more female research chairs, so she wants to force their hands.

On her way to give a speech Wednesday to Canada’s university presidents in Montreal, Kirsty Duncan was handed the latest statistics on the number of men and women among applicants for new Canada Research Chair positions.

“They’re dismal,” Duncan said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “There were two times more men nominated than women.”

The Canada Research Chairs program was implemented 17 years ago to create 2,000 research positions at universities across the country to push for excellence in engineering, natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences. Canada spends $265 million a year on the program.

As of December 2016, there were 1,612 filled positions, among which 30 per cent were women. That fits with the fact between 2000 and 2015, 31 per cent of applicants for the jobs were from women.

Duncan said the latest figures show nothing has changed, a status quo she can’t accept, since she made it known when she was sworn in to the Liberal cabinet that improving the gender balance would be a priority.

“The bar isn’t moving and that can’t continue,” she said, noting that she even ad-libbed part of her speech because of it: “I let them know I was very disappointed with the results.”

In 2009, universities set targets to try and increase the number of research chairs who are women, visible minorities, indigenous people and people with disabilities. In 2012, universities had to start reporting their progress to meet these targets annually.

Duncan said if the voluntary program isn’t working, she is open to forcing the issue — but would not say how that would work.

Last fall, Duncan implemented new equity rules for the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program. That program was launched in 2008 to provide grants of up to $10 million for universities to attract big-name talent in science and technology for seven-year terms. Only one of the 28 current CERC positions is held by a woman.

In October, when the latest round of applications began, Duncan said universities had to include detailed equity plans and recruitment strategies in their applications. Duncan would not say if that is the path she will take for the Canada Research Chairs program as well.

Canada lags behind other nations when it comes to women in science, she said; only 36 per cent of PhDs in science in Canada are earned by women, compared with 49 per cent in the U.K. and 46 per cent in the United States.

In 1987, just 20 per cent of  the people working in science, technology, engineering and math fields were female, a number that has grown to just 22 per cent today.

“I believe (that) in a globalized competitive economy, we cannot afford to leave half our talent on the sidelines,” she said.

Ottawa also reinstated the University and College Academic Staff System survey through Statistics Canada last year to generate data on gender, age, rank and salary for university staff. Preliminary data on the number of teaching staff and salaries was released this week but the full release is expected this fall.

Follow @mrabson on Twitter

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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