Tuesday, July 27, 1999

Margaret Wente
Globe and Mail

There's a good job on offer at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. It's a tenure-stream faculty position in the psychology department. Decent pay, nice colleagues, fine place to live. Interested? You'll need a Ph.D., references -- and ovaries.

It says so right in the job ad. "The department is attempting to address a gender imbalance, and therefore will hire a woman for this position," it says. You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that this stipulation is completely legal. But it is. The Ontario Human Rights Commission says so.

I was under the impression that human rights commissions exists to prevent discrimination. I was misinformed.

Section 14 of the Ontario Human Rights Code says that discrimination is allowed on behalf of people who've been historically disadvantaged. Employers who want to invoke Section 14 don't have to get approval first, though in this case the university consulted extensively with the commission before it wrote its ad.

I did not realize that female Ph.D.s in developmental psychology are one of society's disadvantaged groups. I phoned up the chairman of Laurier's psychology department for the story behind the ad.

Dr. Angelo Santi, who seems to be a very nice man, explained to me that the psychology department has 22 people on the faculty. Only four of them are women. Everyone thinks there should be more women on staff.

But as we talked, it became obvious that the gender imbalance in the department has absolutely nothing to do with discrimination. In fact, the university has turned flipflops to recruit female professors.

At just about all Canadian universities, including Laurier, women have benefitted hugely in the 1990s from affirmative action. Across the country the proportion of women hired has been consistently greater than the proportion of women in the applicant pool. At the University of Western Ontario, for example, which competes with Laurier for students and staff, women
have been about twice as likely to be hired as men.

Laurier's real problem is that good female candidates are scarce, and they have their pick of jobs. For several legitimate reasons, Laurier isn't at the top of their list. It's a second-tier university without a PhD program in a smaller city. If they have an academic spouse, it's unlikely that the spouse will be able to find work nearby. In fact the psychology department has gone out of its way to offer jobs to women, but they have, inconveniently, chosen to go elsewhere.

So Laurier's problem is indeed rooted in discrimination. But it's the reverse discrimination of other schools that strip the marketplace of most all the qualified women. Its perverse response? To decide that any woman is preferable to any man.

What makes gender so important that it overrides merit? Here's what the department chairman and the university's equity officer told me. First, the students are mostly women, and they need more role models so that they can be encouraged to pursue academic careers. (No other department has a serious gender imbalance.) Second, the department's numerous faculty committees all require a certain quota of women, and the current women are overworked.

These arguments are so feeble that they lend credence to the rumor that the administration has simply flat-out refused to approve another male hire. So the chairman took the honest way out, and found a way to advertise for women only.

The job ad has kicked up a minor storm in the academic world. Plenty of people think it's intellectually offensive and a terrible signal to both men and women. Some professors at other schools have started a write-in campaign to the university's president.

"We spent a lot of years fighting discrimination," says Stephen Lupker, a psychology professor at Western. "It's really unfortunate to find out this is legal." You don't have to be a man to agree with that.

Posted with permission.

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