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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2007

Women & Collective Action in Academic Staff Associations

By Helen J. Breslauer

Female academics in Canadian universities have benefited from the work of a variety of feminist activist organizations within and outside the university. These groups have operated under different names — commissions, caucuses, committees — and at federal, provincial, local, university administration, and faculty association levels. They include the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, CAUT’s women’s committee,1 and status of women committees of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, the Council of Ontario Universities and numerous local faculty associations.

They have produced academic work, for example, Monica Boyd’s 1979 paper, published by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, analyzing statistics on rank and salary differentials between female and male faculty in Canadian universities; policies like CAUT’s 1988 Policy Statement on Positive Action to Improve the Status of Women in Canadian Universities; guides such as “Hers and His: Language of Equal Value” by Wendy Katz, published in 1981 by the status of women committee of the Nova Scotia Confederation of University Faculty Associations, and manuals aimed at equality of opportunity for women, such as the Council of Ontario Universities’ 1988 “Employment Equity for Women: A University Handbook.” They have also sponsored conferences, workshops and awards, such as the Sarah Shorten Award given by CAUT. But the mother of all contributions has been the discipline of women’s studies, which has produced a revolution in knowledge about women, men, gender and inequality.

Much of my work over the past 35 years in and for Canadian universities has been with faculty association status of women committees and has led me to the following four points.

Local status of women committees are creatures of the organizations that sponsor or fund them. As such, their work is both facilitated by access to association resources and constrained by the policies, procedures, practices and cultures of those associations. A lack of understanding of, and appreciation for, this duality can and has caused many difficulties for these committees in Canadian universities, since both universities and their faculty associations are still male-dominated.

My second point is related to the first and concerns the constituency that local committees represent and to whom they report. At the level of the individual university, the committee may argue their constituents are female academic staff in the university or in the association. But most probably, the committee reports to whichever body governs the association, whether it is an executive committee or board. For provincial and national committees, the issue is more complex. These bodies may think of their constituents as the status of women committees of individual associations, or all female academic staff in the province or the country. In fact, provincial and national organizations may well maintain that the constituencies are the same as theirs: the faculty associations who are members of their organizations.

My third point concerns the membership of status of women committees. Who serves on these committees? How are committee members chosen? What are the criteria for choosing committee members? What are the self-selection processes involved? In my experience, the vast majority of those who serve on these committees are women who have either an academic or an activist interest in and experience with women’s issues. In my opinion, that is a good thing. I have seen problems develop when members join whose primary or sole experience was a personal grievance. Those of us who have worked with women’s issues know that most women have had some such experience. But when it is the sole credential for serving on a status of women committee, it can influence the committee’s agenda in a manner unhelpful to the larger cause.

My last point has to do with the choices that organizations must make about women’s committees and committees that are more broadly defined, such as equity committees or human rights committees. In my view, this is the most difficult issue: making the choice between structures that deal with women’s issues and other equity issues, or choosing to have them coexist. In the universities, women’s committees tend not to be any more diverse than the rest of the faculty, and there is the danger of their being seen as — or in fact being — a lobby for white, heterosexual, able-bodied women, while equity committees are for everyone, except these women.

There are differences of opinion about whether separate women’s committees should exist or whether women’s issues should become part of the larger equity issue. There seems to be mixed evidence about what actually happens when one choice or the other is made. The Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences changed the name of its women’s portfolio to the women’s and equity issues portfolio. CAUT, on the other hand, chose another path and struck a second committee, an equity committee, in addition to its women’s committee.

A potentially promising avenue to address this dilemma has been suggested by York University social scientist Linda Briskin. In a series of publications (see especially, her December 2001 article in the CAUT Bulletin and, more recently, in Just Labour, 8:101-12), Briskin develops her ideas about groups organizing first into separate caucuses and then coming together in a “caucus of caucuses.” This may well be a fruitful process for faculty associations to explore in order to address the choices outlined above.

1. CAUT’s women’s committee originated under the name of the status of women committee, but was recently changed to reflect the one more commonly used in the union movement. “Status of Women,” is a name still retained by the federal government, although after recent deep funding cuts, it is not clear what will be left of Status of Women Canada. My own preference is for the term “women’s committee” — in my view, “status of women” has a vaguely colonial ring to it.

Helen Breslauer is a researcher and consultant. Hew views owe a debt to her many years as senior research officer for the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, 14 years as observer on CAUT’s status of women committee and her extensive consulting experience on equity issues in the university. Earlier versions of these ideas were presented at the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association conference in June 2006 and at a meeting with members of the University of Toronto Faculty Association’s status of women committee.

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily CAUT.

Commentary: CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime.

Les opinions exprimées sont celles des auteurs et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la position officielle de l’ACPPU.

Commentaires destinés à la rubrique Tribune libre : L’ACPPU invite les lecteurs à soumettre des articles de 800 à 1 500 mots qui portent sur des questions d’actualité liées directement à l’enseignement postsecondaire. Les articles ne doivent traiter ni de dossiers de griefs particuliers ni de questions d’intérêt strictement local. Ils ne doivent pas comporter des allégations non fondées ni des propos diffamants, calomniateurs ou offensants envers des personnes ou des groupes. Les articles doivent être empreints d’une objectivité totale et aborder des sujets de nature politique plutôt que personnelle. Un commentaire est avant tout l’expression d’une opinion et non pas le « récit d’une vie ». Il convient normalement de le formuler à la première personne. Les articles peuvent être soumis en français ou en anglais, mais ils ne seront pas traduits. L'ACPPU se réserve le droit de choisir les articles qui seront publiés. La rédaction ne communiquera avec les auteurs de commentaires que si elle décide de publier leurs articles. Les commentaires doivent être envoyés à Liza Duhaime.