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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 1999

Women's faculty awards called discriminatory

Jennifer Mather has again trotted out the tired refrain that we must do something about the "under-representation" of women in science ("Working for More Women in Science" Bulletin, February), a theme that has unfortunately resulted in, among other measures, a rebirth of the discriminatory Women's Faculty Awards from NSERC.

There are several problems with this view, but I will focus on two. One is the claim that the paucity of women represents a loss of expertise which men cannot duplicate. There is currently no evidence that women have a unique perspective in science. In the physical sciences especially, (where women are most in the minority) it would be difficult to see how such a perspective would operate, the rules of evidence being prescribed by the very nature of science.

What we most need is support for the very best scientists, regardless of sex or any other irrelevant criterion.

A second weakness in the discrimination explanation is that there are large differences in the representation of women across science disciplines, being higher in the biological sciences than the physical sciences (this occurs in other countries also). Yet there is no basis for believing that these disciplines differ in their demands on "competition, objectivity, and dedication to work," the "male centred" approach so deplored by feminists.

A report from NSERC in defence of the re-instatement of the WFA awards states that in the most recent data available, women formed 46 per cent of the hirees in agriculture and biological sciences, compared to 22 per cent in engineering and applied sciences. There is simply no justification for claiming that these differences arise from variation in the temperature of the "chilly climate."

I have suggested elsewhere that sex ratios across different science fields arise from self-selection on the basis of both specific ability patterns and interests. Since CAUT's Status of Women Committee seems unable to weigh evidence objectively, why not disband it altogether?

Doreen Kimura
Visiting Professor, Simon Fraser University

The article is not my tired refrain but the report of a session at the CAUT Status of Women Conference; Kimura's is the isolated voice. To resolve Problem One, she should read Donna Haraway's "Primate Visions" or view the NFB film "Asking Different Questions: Women in Science." Problem Two states that differences in women's participation are "self-selection" and "interest." Developmental psychology shows this as a construction -- make science one way, train women to act and think another, and they will diverge. Eleanor Maccoby's "Growing up apart: Coming together" shows the relentless childhood gender segregation that underlies this preference manipulation.

- Jennifer Mather, CAUT Status of Women Committee