Excellence, Not 'Equity'

September 2010

Here we go again: Another day, another trumped-up controversy about Stephen Harper's supposedly retrograde agenda.

On Tuesday, the Toronto Star breathlessly informed its readers that "not one woman" could be found among a new batch of academic grant recipients.

"Of the 19 people who were selected to be the first of the 'prestigious' Canada Excellence Research Chairs, receiving up to $10-million in total in federal money over the next seven years, all were men," reported the Star. "'I felt kicked in the stomach,' says Wendy Robbins, co-ordinator of women's studies at the University of New Brunswick and one of a group of academics who mounted a successful human-rights challenge to the gender imbalance in a previous, federal research-chair program ... Robbins says that she's in discussions now to see whether a new human-rights complaint may be necessary."

Ah yes -- kicked in the stomach. Where does the Star find all these women, gays and visible minorities who supposedly spend day and night enduring endless blows in the midsection from Stephen Harper's Conservatives?

It's a wonder half the country isn't writhing around on the pavement, gasping for breath.

But here's a question for Ms. Robbins, and the Toronto Star reporter who went running to her for a reaction quote: How many men teach women's studies? Has an effort been made to recruit male academics to balance the faculty in women's studies departments? Or are there just too few qualified men who apply? What about other traditionally "female-dominated" fields of study, like nursing? Have women launched "human rights complaints" to get men into those areas? If not, why not? Shouldn't gender equity be the priority in the hiring practices of every department?

The answer to this last question, of course, is no, it shouldn't be. This is especially true at the highest level of academia, which is the stratum being targeted by the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, a program that aims to lure world-class academic talent to Canada in environmental sciences and technologies; natural resources and energy; health and related life sciences and technologies; and information and co-mmunications technologies. Excellence, not political correctness, should be the deciding factor when apportioning taxpayer money in this way.

According to Suzanne Fortier, head of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the reason for the lack of female appointees is a paucity of female applicants. Women aren't heavily represented at senior levels in the fields of research involved.

If Ms. Robbins and her colleagues want to encourage equity, then encourage qualified women to apply for positions. But if those women don't exist, or don't want to apply, you can't invent them or force them to do so. And you shouldn't appoint less qualified women simply because they are female. Not only would such a move be a waste of taxpayer dollars, it would also stigmatize those female scientists who do happen to operate at the elite levels of scientific research as if they were affirmative-action cases.

As for the charge of gender bias against Mr. Harper's government, it is bunk. This government desperately wants to appoint women to all sorts of places. To take but one example of many: From 2006-2008, a member of this editorial board served on the Judicial Appointments Committee for the Tax Court of Canada. The committee was told at the start of its mandate that the government wanted to appoint more women to the bench. But the body faced the same issue as the Research Council: Fewer women than men applied; most were not qualified; and, as a result, the majority of the recommendations ended up being men.

What was the government's reaction? The committee was asked to re-examine a number of female applicants who'd initially been rejected, to make sure it hadn't missed something that would entitle them to a recommendation. These applications were rejected again -- because they simply weren't up to par. Eventually, other women did make the grade, and were appointed to the court, but they got there based on their ability, not their gender.

Which is as it should be. Whether in a science lab, or in a courtroom, Canada's elite talent should be picked on the basis of merit, not identity politics.