Science Careers Blog

November 26, 2012

"No Single Solution" to Gender Disparities at Research Universities, Canadian Study Finds

"There is no single solution to maximize the presence and potential of women in university research," declares a report issued 21 November by the Council of Canadian Academies.  The prestigious body undertook this study of gender issues in academe after the Canadian government established a program of ultra-high-status and extremely well-financed professorships called the Canada Excellence Research Chairs and asked its universities to nominate likely candidates. Not one of the eminent academics the universities nominated was female.

Entitled Strengthening Canada's Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension and written by a panel of prominent university figures, the report found a web of factors to explain why, though women outnumber men in undergraduate and masters programs and nearly equal their numbers in doctoral programs, the proportion of females shrinks with each step up the faculty career ladder.

Canada's academic situation matches those of other advanced countries, the report observes.  It finds that women faculty members are most plentiful (39.6%) in social sciences, education, and humanities fields and not far behind (35%) in life sciences, but constitute only 14.8% in engineering, computer, mathematics, and physical sciences.  Despite "great positive change" in recent decades, much more is needed, the report states.

"Clearly, the factors that affect the career trajectories of women differ across disciplines," it continues.  These factors begin exerting their influence long before students reach university, it notes.  Young women, for example, are "consistently" less confident of their ability to succeed in math-based scientific fields than young men. Shortages of role models and "negative perceptions of some research careers" also discourage some girls from pursuing these disciplines.  Women who do choose to study them at college or university may experience "chilly climates [and] the cumulative effects of stereotyping, recruitment and evaluation biases" that can "result in the perception that women are undervalued."

"The paid work-family balance is a particular challenge for women researchers with families," the report notes.  Because of the conflict between demanding research careers and domestic responsibilities that generally exceed those carried by men, Canadian academic women, like their American counterparts, have fewer children, have them later, and hold lower academic rank than their male colleagues.  In addition, "a small but persistent salary gap" also separates the sexes.

"Acknowledging inequity and taking proactive steps to ensure equity are two different things," the report notes.  The document's analysis contains no surprises for anyone who follows the issue of gender in academe, nor does the observation that no single recommendation can solve the problem.  The report does, however, provide worthwhile confirmation of observations made in other countries.  Accomplishing greater equity in academe, whether in Canada, the US, or elsewhere, will take a range of changes--familiar from many other reports and studies--in attitudes and policies affecting pre-college education, and a host of university hiring, promotion, and workplace policies.

You can find the report here.

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