Twenty-five years ago the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment sparked a wave of activism on Canadian campuses. In light of this anniversary, we should reflect on equity progress in our post-secondary institutions.
The commission, headed by Justice Rosalie Abella, called for employment equity as a strategy to dismantle barriers and open opportunities for women, members of visible minorities, Aboriginal peoples and persons with disabilities. The commission’s 1984 report resulted in the creation of federal and some provincial legislation and regulations requiring employers to adopt equity policies and timetables, of which the Federal Contractors Program remains the most significant for post-secondary institutions. It requires organizations of 100 employees or more that wish to bid on government contracts of $200,000 or more to implement a program of employment equity following criteria set by the federal government.
Problems implementing the equity plan soon became evident, as activists’ efforts to establish affirmative action programs were undermined by reluctant employers — and sometimes by their own colleagues — who characterized equity initiatives as a threat to academic merit and excellence. Grassroots activism, in the form of status of women committees, equity committees and caucuses slowly raised awareness of the need to build an equity culture.
Progress faltered in the 1990s as the federal government’s already weak commitment to employment equity declined. Without the regulatory authority to hold institutions accountable, academic staff associations pursued equity issues through collective bargaining. In the bargaining environment, equity became synonymous with “diversity in representation,” leading to an overemphasis on counting, numerical targets, ratios and pools. Systemic strategies increasingly gave way to professionalized human rights offices and procedures that privileged individual complaints.
The proportion of white women in the academy has steadily increased over the last 25 years, but there has been less progress for racialized and disabled women and men, and shamefully few post-secondary educators are Aboriginal. The complexity of the “intersection” of the different dimensions of equity and the ambiguity of the categories of “disability” and “visible minority” have only recently been taken up. At some institutions, systemic barriers facing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons have been formally recognized in collective agreements or equity policies.
Yet parallel efforts to recognize and understand the barriers facing persons with disabilities have not been undertaken. And the adequacy of numerical data addressing equity issues remains a serious problem. For example, the annual survey of academic staff compiled by Statistics Canada measures only gender composition.
Canada Census data provide excellent information on gender, racialization, Aboriginal status and some information on disability, but do not measure rank, separate tenured and tenure-track employment from contract work, or identify individual institutions. Reporting on the 2006 Census, CAUT’s Almanac shows that about 15 per cent of university teachers self-identified as a member of a visible minority. This is an increase of about three per cent over 10 years. About one per cent of university teachers identified themselves as an Aboriginal person, only a slight increase over the past decade.
While representation obviously matters, the quest for numbers has dominated the equity agenda to the detriment of understanding how systemic barriers work to exclude and marginalize some groups once they have gained entry to the institution. At too many institutions the climate remains inhospitable to other than dominant perspectives and needs. For example, academic staff with disabilities often find themselves isolated within their units and forced to plead and bargain for accommodations that should be theirs by right. Departments can be hostile to colleagues whose requirements for accommodation “cost” their unit.
Hostility to inclusivity may be reflected at key times like tenure where “fitting in” becomes a question. Too often, departments and disciplines are divided over the meaning of equity issues and over what is respected or even recognized as knowledge. Research interests or publications outside of the majority perspective may be discounted and this can lead to delays or denial of tenure and/or promotion. Community service may be dismissed as professionally irrelevant. The push toward research intensity also contributes to a climate that is anti-equity in that it encourages a singular view of “success” that privileges particular types of funded research.
In academic staff associations equity issues can be marginalized because they are not seen as integral to academic life. Association practices can exclude members and discourage participation. Analyzing the climates in our associations as well as in our workplaces is one place to start. Some associations have bargained employment systems reviews or equity audits. Such assessments aim to uncover barriers to participation and lead to a better understanding of processes of exclusion and marginalization. Such assessments could become integral to association renewal. We must renew our efforts if the promise of equity begun in 1984 is to be realized.