National Post, 26 July 1999, p. A14.


Doreen Kimura

Academia’s effort to remove ‘gender imbalances’ means men need not apply.

Wilfred Laurier University, located in Waterloo, Ont., recently published an advertisement soliciting a tenure-track teaching position in its psychology department.  But not all applicants are welcome.  The ad clearly indicated “the Department is attempting to address a gender imbalance…and therefore will hire a woman for this position.”

This episode does not stand in isolation.  It is part of a campaign in this country to undermine the principle of merit in appointing university faculty.

Moreover, it is a campaign financed with your money.  Last year, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the chief source of funding for basic science researchers in Canadian academic institutions, reinstated the “Women’s Faculty Awards” in science, now renamed University Faculty Awards.  Despite the neutral name, only women are eligible.  Under the guise of addressing a “gender imbalance” in the sciences, men are not allowed to apply.

These awards are a significant help to young scientists starting out in a university setting.  They not only pay the host institution a substantial portion of the salary (minimum $40,000 plus benefits) for several years, but also guarantee a tenure-track position and a research grant to the awardee.  Last year 22 awards were made, amounting to more than $1 million.  Such awards should be a valued resource for promoting and retaining scientific excellence in this country.  Instead, they are being subverted in the service of ill-informed social engineering.

In defence of the women’s awards, NSERC president Tom Brzustowski simply parrots the assertion made by women’s groups such as the CAUT Status of Women Committee, that women are “greatly under-represented” in the natural science and engineering faculties of our universities, because “significant barriers” exist to hiring women in such disciplines.  In fact, the reverse is true.  Three separate studies of employment practices in Canadian universities have reported that women are being hired in proportions higher than would be expected from their numbers in the pool of qualified applicants.  This applies to all fields, including science.  Inevitably, this means some women are being hired over better-qualified men.

Although women are indeed found in lower numbers in the physical sciences than in other fields (a pattern found throughout the world), there is no credible evidence that this is due to either systemic or direct discrimination.  For example, the common complaint that these fields are bastions of white male dominance is flatly refuted by the very high representation of Asians in faculty positions.  The accusation of a “chilly climate” for women in science is also impossible to reconcile with the rapid increase in women in medical and other biological sciences.  Recent Canadian data demonstrates women formed almost 50% of the hirees in agriculture and biological sciences, but just over 20% of those in engineering and related applied sciences.  Biological sciences are just as lab-oriented and “chilly” as the physical sciences.  Something other than discrimination is influencing the mix.  This is not to suggest that no woman has ever been made to feel uncomfortable in a lab situation, but that cannot be the basis for their lower representation in physics than in physiology.

Why then are there so few women in the hard sciences?

The objective evidence suggests it may be largely a matter of self-selection.  For one thing, math-reasoning ability is of great importance for success in fields such as physics, computer science and engineering.  Although girls do at least as well as boys in school math achievement exams, males have outscored females for several decades on math aptitude tests, where novel problems are encountered.  Even in young people selected for being highly talented in math, boys outnumber girls at the high end of the scale by more than 10 to one.  Of course, it is this end of the scale that is critical for advanced education in the physical sciences, where women apply in lower numbers.

Another important factor documented by American researchers is that women on average prefer more person-oriented occupations than men do.  This is true even of girls with outstanding math ability, who presumably could succeed in the physical sciences.  Biological sciences are perhaps more appealing to women because they investigate the nature of living organisms.

The preferential treatment of women in academia appears to be accepted and in some cases actively supported by all Canadian political parties except Reform.  Although Mike Harris’ Conservative party in Ontario did away with the NDP’s employment equity legislation, it has done nothing to rid Ontario universities of employment equity offices and practices.  The Ontario ministry of education and training stated last year that employment equity is a “prerogative of the institution.”  So Ontario citizens are still encumbered by a system they thought they were rejecting by electing the Harris government.  In contrast, Deborah Grey, the Reform member from Edmonton North, commenting on the NSERC women’s awards, clearly stated her party’s support for the merit principle over preferential treatment.

A much earlier version of the University Faculty Awards was open to both men and women.  Apparently, it was the failure of women to compete on an equal basis that resulted in the subsequent exclusion of men, inevitably tainting the current awards to women.  If women are to have a respected place in academia, we must return to genuinely equitable competitions open to all qualified applicants.

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