The Real Discrimination At Universities Is Against Men

September 2010

As someone who teaches at a Canadian university, I'd like to think that when my students graduate and apply for jobs, each applicant will be considered on his or her merits. Unfortunately, that's not how things work at many universities today.

Although some people have expressed concern that the first round of Canada Excellence Research Chairs have all gone to men, much more common are university job searches that are biased in favour of women.

In one recent job search, a Canadian arts faculty encouraged only women candidates to apply. Once applications were received, only women were considered and only women were interviewed. This kind of restriction didn't happen in the case of the Canada Research Chair searches where both men and women were considered for positions.

Discrimination against men isn't always so extreme. Most departments allow men to apply, but almost always "give preference" to women. For anyone who favours non-discriminatory hiring, even this is a shameful practice.

For those of us who have worked in Canada all our lives, is this the kind of job market we want to leave to our children and grandchildren? For the many people who immigrate to Canada each year, is this the kind of non-discriminatory society they're hoping to discover once they arrive? Probably not.

So why do such practices persist?

Partly it's because they're supported by a small but active group of ideologues, people who mistakenly believe they'll be able to prevent the perceived wrongs of 50 or 100 years ago from ever recurring by refusing to hire a generation of young men who had no role in past discrimination.

More often it's because such practices are encouraged in today's world of identity politics. Twenty years ago, many people expressed tremendous moral outrage when slightly more men than women were enrolled in Canadian universities. Now that the percentages have reversed and university degree programs are filled with many more women than men, there's not word of complaint.

Far from wanting to introduce a few temporary, gender-neutral procedures intended to help advance the cause of non-discrimination, it turns out that what most advocates of affirmative action really wanted was to advance the interests of a few favoured groups. Pretending to be friends of the merit principle, they convinced governments and universities that temporary discriminatory measures were essential for combatting so-called "systemic discrimination." What was never mentioned was that this newly discovered form of discrimination was to be found only in male-dominated disciplines, never in female-dominated ones. It was a neat trick. As one colleague memorably put it, "Saying you will hire someone preferentially in order to combat discrimination is like saying you would give your right arm to be ambidextrous."

Partly, too, such policies remain in place because it's always easy to find pragmatic careerists who are willing to implement them. These are the people who tell you privately with great earnestness that they are opposed to discriminatory searches. But somehow, in public, they always find it necessary to act otherwise, especially if failing to do so might jeopardize their career advancement.

Of course, such moral hypocrisy is nothing new. Sometimes it may even result from genuinely difficult moral choices.

For people who want to pursue a career they love, or who want to support their families, it's often necessary to become a team player. Sometimes this involves going along with morally suspect policies. It's easy to say you'd never join a restricted golf club if you don't play golf. But if golf is your livelihood, and if there's only one golf club in town, the decision becomes more difficult.

Even so, at some point people who say they are opposed to discriminatory hiring need to speak up in department and faculty meetings and refuse to participate in discriminatory searches. People who say they are opposed to discrimination need to stand up and refuse to administer discriminatory policies.

This isn't just because discrimination is immoral. It's also because it's every university's responsibility to find the very best people to teach and do research.

Every time a job search is restricted in a medical faculty, it becomes less likely that an improved cancer treatment will be found. Every time a search is restricted in a history department, it becomes less likely that we'll be able to discover the truth about controversial events of the past.

Universities that restrict searches and hire from among only the best men, or from among only the best women, will never know whether they have succeeded in hiring the very best person for the job. Universities that "give preference" to some groups rather than others end up in exactly the same position. Admittedly, opposing university policies is sometimes easier said than done. More than one talented academic has been hounded from a university because of his or her opposition to affirmative action.

Others have found that speaking invitations begin to dry up, or that they have become isolated in other ways. But for those who remain, perhaps there is some comfort to be found in the words of Thomas Paine.

Paine's acquaintance Benjamin Franklin once remarked, "Where Liberty dwells, there is my country." Paine's reply was telling: "Where Liberty is not, there is mine."