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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2008

Women Still Lagging & Losing in Sciences

By Penni Stewart
Female students and academic staff continue to suffer inequities despite numerous reports documenting the problems and decades of policy, administrative and regulatory initiatives to resolve them. No­where is the under-representation and inequitable position of women more apparent than in science, engineering and related disciplines. These and other equity issues will be the focus of a conference next month when CAUT hosts its biennial women’s conference entitled Mobilizing in an Era of Restructuring.

Women have been attending Ca­nadian universities at an ever increasing rate. By 2005 women comprised the majority of all university students (57 per cent) and, most striking, 46 per cent of doctoral candidates.1 Increased participation rates, however, have done little to alter an obvious disciplinary imbalance. Thus, while women in 2003 made up the majority of PhD students in the social and behavi­oural sciences and in law (59.7 per cent), they represented less than a third of students in mathematics, computer and information sciences (27.6 per cent). In architecture and engineering women accounted for less than 20 per cent of enrolments and only 40.6 per cent in physical and life sciences, which includes the more feminized discipline of biology.2

The imbalance between disciplines is also manifest in the representation of female faculty in mathe­matics, physical and applied sciences and engineering. In 2004, women held 14.6 per cent of the full-time faculty positions in mathematics and physical sciences, 11.5 per cent in engineering and applied sciences and 27.6 per cent in agriculture and biological sciences.3

And women’s progress through the ranks also lags. Statistics indicate that, even when seniority is ta­ken into account, women remain under-represented at senior ranks and women are promoted less ra­pidly than men. At the University of Calgary, an investigation in 2005 found women take nine years lon­ger than men to achieve promotion to full professors.4 And at the University of British Columbia, a 2007 task force report noted that: “For faculty cohorts hired as assistant professors in the Faculty of Science since 1991, promotion rates to full professor, 13 years after being hired, were 14 per cent of women and 46 per cent of men.”5

Although data on part-time teaching is not collected systematically in Canada, individual institutional reports suggest that in faculties of science, engineering and technology women are more likely than men to have begun their careers with appointments as sessional lecturers and also more likely to be hired into instructor or teaching-only positions.

How to account for this? Since the 1999 MIT report on the status of female faculty in science sent shock waves through North American universities, more than a dozen reports have documented how the relative disadvantage of women and other equity seeking groups is rooted in institutional cultures and systemic factors such as “evaluation biases” and standards that exclude women. Workplace environments may isolate female faculty, neglect to provide meaningful men­toring and have systemic hostility to a balanced work and family life.6

Evaluation biases have the effect of undervaluing women’s scholarly work. Studies have found that wo­men are often less successful than men in competing for grant money and, when successful, obtain smaller awards. Under-promoting women to full professors also has an impact on the likelihood of receiving awards.

In the past three years only two of 18 Steacie Fellowships — a top prize given by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada — have been awarded to female scientists. Unfortunately there is no data describing the distribution by equity category of postdoctoral fellowships or indeed of most awards. All of these point to the urgent need to develop systematic equity tracking and analysis of awards programs.

One award program that has been analyzed is the Canada Research Chairs. The program was created in 2000 to strengthen “research excellence,” but by 2002 only about 15 per cent of new chairs had been awarded to women (no data is reported for members of other under-represented groups). Two years later, eight faculty filed a human rights complaint arguing that the distribution of awards discriminated against women, Abori­ginal persons, members of “racialized” groups and persons with disabilities. The complaint was settled in 2006. The Chairs Program agreed to take steps to prevent future discrimination in the selection process, including hiring a consultant to de­velop a methodology to guide universities in setting targets for representation of the four designated groups.

But there has been a trail of unrealized expectations in the two years since the settlement. In 2006, women received 15.8 per cent of Tier 1 chairs and 27.3 per cent of Tier 2 chairs; in 2007, 76 per cent of the awards were made to men. It is disheartening that only a small part of the agreement has been im­plemented. The methodology, regarded as inadequate by the original complainants, has not been released to universities. So while local targets for representation have not been set, the award process continues.

No single policy can change these gender patterns. But from the research mentioned above and many other studies, we already know a lot about what needs to be done and how to do it.

Our October conference provides a rich opportunity to move these issues forward, not only to examine restructuring trends, but also to develop strategies to remedy existing inequities while ensuring that equity is intrinsic to the pro­cess. I look forward to seeing many of you there.


1. Statistics Canada. “Graduates of Doctoral Programs — Who are they and what are their post degree plans?” Education Matters. 81-004-xie

2. CAUT, March 2008. Equity review #3

3. CAUT, March 2008. Equity review #2

4. Hermina Joldersma. 2005. Next Steps: Report of the Gender Equity Project, University of Calgary

5. Task Force. 2007. An Assessment of the Working Climate for Science Faculty at the University of British Columbia

6. Alison Wylie, Janet Jakobsen & Gisela Fosado. 2007. Women, Work and the Academy: Strategies for Responding to ‘Post-Civil Rights Era’ Gender Discrimination. New York: The Barnard Center for Research on Women