SAFS President Writes to NSERC Grant Committees

January 2000

Dear Colleague:

I am writing as president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), and also as an NSERC-sponsored researcher. SAFS is dedicated to the maintenance of academic freedom, and of the merit principle, in Canadian post-secondary institutions of learning.

As you may know, NSERC has reinstated the practice of giving certain beginning-faculty research awards exclusively to women. These were formerly called Women's Faculty awards (WFA), but are now named University Faculty Awards (UFA). They provide a substantial contribution to the recipient's tenure-track salary for several years, as well as a research grant. I and many other scientists are deeply concerned at what amounts to flagrant discrimination in the distribution of a valuable research resource.

NSERC is the chief support in Canada for basic research in the natural sciences. Its mandate is, above all, to support excellence in research. It does so with extremely limited funding, even with recent supplements. It is therefore all the more important that funds be granted on the basis of excellence alone, not on the basis of ill-informed social engineering.

I have corresponded with President Brzustowski of NSERC on this issue. His response is that women still suffer "significant barriers" to careers in science. This commonly-held belief seems to be based almost entirely on the fact that the numbers of women researchers is lower in the sciences than in other fields. This discrepancy between the sexes is particularly marked in the physical sciences and engineering, a pattern seen throughout the world.

However, there is NO evidence that this is due either to deliberate or "systemic" discrimination. I cannot of course claim that there is no single instance anywhere in Canadian universities of such discrimination, but as a general explanation for the lower numbers of females, it is untenable.

There are now several studies showing that in the past two decades women have been preferentially hired in Canadian universities across several disciplines, including sciences (e.g., Irvine, 1996).

There is also ever-increasing evidence that the lower representation of women in the physical sciences is largely a matter of self-selection on the basis of interests and talents. Women achieve outstanding scores on math aptitude tests in much smaller numbers than men do (Benbow, 1988; Reisberg, 1998), and high mathematical ability is more critical for the physical than the biological sciences (where women have a representation approaching that of men). Even women very talented in math, however, often show strong preferences for more person-oriented occupations than men do and so do not gravitate to the physical sciences (Kleinfeld, 1999; Lubinski & Benbow, 1992). Moreover, the documented lower research productivity of women, evident in all disciplines (Cole & Zuckerman, 1987; Long, 1992; Schneider, 1998), may be especially notable in the sciences where objective criteria such as number of refereed publications are likely to be employed.

The further argument that women students need female role models is unsubstantiated. The number of female students at universities has increased dramatically over the past decade, undeterred by the fact that a majority of instructors was male. I know of no credible evidence that university women learn better under female tutelage, nor that women faculty are more likely to attract highly-talented women students.

Across several years when similar NSERC awards (then called URFs) were available to both men and women, of those individuals identifiable by sex, 57 went to women and 363 to men. (A higher percentage of women applicants received awards even then.)* This means that in a fairer competition, less than 15% of the awards went to women. Now, of course, women receive 100% of the awards. Last year, 22 women received UFAs, amounting to well over a million dollars of exclusively "girl money".

The inference that many better-qualified men are being denied fellowships in the sciences is inescapable. How many talented male scientists are, as a consequence, lost to academic research in Canada we do not know; but if we wish to ensure that our scarce resources go to the most talented researchers, we MUST do away with discriminatory awards.

If you have opinions or suggestions for improving the disposition of the NSERC UFAs, we urge you to write to: Dr. T.A. Brzustowski, NSERC, 350 Albert Street, Ottawa K1A 1H5, or fax to: (613) 992-5337, or e mail to:

*Letter from NSERC fellowships office, 20 Aug 1999.


  • Benbow C.P. (1988) Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability in intellectually talented preadolescents: their nature, effects, and possible causes. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 11, 169-182.
  • Cole J.R. & Zuckerman H. (1987) Marriage, motherhood and research performance in science. Scientific American, February, 119-125.
  • Irvine A.D. Jack and Jill and employment equity. (1996) Dialogue, 35, 255- 291.
  • Kleinfeld J.S. (1999) Student performance: males versus females. The Public Interest, 134, 3-20.
  • Long J.S. (1992) Measures of sex differences in scientific productivity. Social Forces, 71, 159-178.
  • Lubinski D. & Benbow C.P. (1992) Gender differences in abilities and preferences among the gifted: implications for the math-science pipeline. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1, 61-66.
  • Reisberg L. (1998) Disparities grow in SAT scores of ethnic and racial groups. The Chronicle of Higher education, 11 Sept, A42.
  • Schneider A. (1998) Why don't women publish as much as men? The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 Sept, A14-A16.

Doreen Kimura, PhD, FRSC, LLD (Hon)
Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship