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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2014

Equity matters

By Robin Vose
This month marks a tragic milestone in the form of the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre — the politically-motivated, targeted murder of 14 women at École Polytechnique by a self-avowed “anti­ feminist.” For many of us this was a formative event, highlighting the ongoing realities of violence against women in our society. It also provided a sharp reminder that, far from providing isolation or protection from such violence, our university and college campuses are all too frequently flashpoints where violence and hatred are actualized. It forced us to more closely examine, as a society, what measures we were willing to take to stop violence against women, to limit access to firearms, and ultimately to explore the roots of intolerance and discrimination in all their forms.

Unfortunately, we have not succeeded very well in addressing these concerns. Sexism, misogyny and sexual violence remain ende­mic, both on our campuses and throughout society. “Rape culture” is still with us, in many ways more visibly than ever. Recent events at the CBC and on Parliament Hill have reminded us that many women continue to face discrimination and aggression in even the most genteel workplaces, as well as at home and in public. Perhaps most disturbing of all, the disproportionate number of attacks and murders targeting Aboriginal women in our country is an ongoing national scandal that requires urgent attention and action.

The scope and extent of these abuses is sometimes overwhelming. But 25 years of research, reflection and engagement have at least allowed us to broaden our understanding of the problem. We are increasingly aware of how a whole gamut of “othering” factors such as gender, gender identity, sexuality, race, disability, age and class can combine to complicate and facilitate discriminatory treatment. More research is needed, but we now have a far better understanding of the policies and resources that can help prevent or mitigate discrimination and violence. What is lacking is the political will to address the issue with the seriousness it deserves.

It is important for all of us — whatever our gender, our privileges, our specialization, status or rank — to realize that social injustice is everyone’s problem. As university and college faculty members we can sometimes take shelter in the relative comfort of our classrooms and offices and laboratories, focused primarily on the business at hand of conducting high-level academic teaching and research. This is a good thing, and we must vigorously defend that relative comfort and protection.

But we must also acknowledge its limits, and examine its potential inequities. Are women, and members of other frequently disadvantaged communities, welcome and safe in those same classrooms, offices and laboratories? Can we do more to practice equity and non-discrimination, to respect the human rights of our students and colleagues and neighbours and families, and to ensure our institutions do the same?

If we fail to take these issues seriously we not only perpetuate the unfairness and often devastating harm of the current situation in general terms, but also risk a diminution or even the loss of some of our most promising students and colleagues. Threatening and discriminatory practices, even when unacknowledged, subtle, or masked, have prevented far too many from fully participating in the academy for far too long.

These are not tangential concerns to be left to a few specialized activists, while the bulk of our professional attention is directed elsewhere. Without equity, unfairness and distortions seep into every aspect of our working lives — from classroom dynamics to peer-review and granting regimes, from hiring, promotion and tenure committees to the simple navigation of campus corridors. The fact is that equity is an essential consideration for all of us, and as members of unions and faculty associations we need to address it on a continual basis.

Whenever we fight for better wages and working conditions, these must be shared by all — not just the majority, but minorities of all sorts, including the most marginalized. We must ensure all community members have a voice and a safe place, where their concerns can be heard and their contributions valued. And we must do whatever we can to extend the principles of equity and inclusivity beyond the immediate workplace, to society at large.

On Dec. 6, 1989, 14 women were brutally killed simply because they were in an aca­demic space — the same academic space we work in every day. They were violently denied the opportunity to build their future lives, or to continue in their chosen professions. We owe it to them, and to every other victim of discrimination and violence, to make both society as a whole and our aca­demic world in particular into more just and equitable places where difference can thrive, and where identity does not become a barrier.

Let us resolve to make equity a central concern in everything we do. Let us denounce and condemn sexism, misogyny, and all other forms of inequity as soon as we become witness to them in our communities. And let us pledge to use the (often very considerable) agency and resources we possess, as university and college staff members, to ensure that past injustices become lessons for the future.