When it was announced that 19 Canada Excellence Research Chairs had all gone to men, there was understandable shock and resentment among members of the female professorship.
With all the brilliant women in the world, Canada apparently couldn't find one to fill one of these prestigious jobs? Conspiracy theories ensued. Some cried discrimination. But according to Andrew Irvine, these women couldn't have been more wrong.
In an opinion piece published this week in The Vancouver Sun, the UBC philosophy professor said it is men, not women, who are routinely discriminated against by universities. The 19 research chairs are an exception; much more common are hiring processes that favour women.
Prof. Irvine said the discrimination is often subtle. Men are allowed to apply, but women are given preference. "For anyone who favours non-discriminatory hiring, even this is a shameful practice," he wrote.
He suggested these discriminatory policies are supported by a small, but active group of "ideologues" - "people who mistakenly believe they'll be able to prevent the perceived wrongs of 50 to 100 years ago from ever recurring by refusing to hire a generation of young men who had no role in past discrimination."
I was waiting for Mr. Irvine to produce his proof. Unfortunately, the best he could do was one anecdotal story about a job search allegedly initiated by a Canadian university's arts faculty, in which only women were encouraged to apply. He declined to name the school.
Prof. Irvine also declined an invitation to chat more about this theory, offering in an e-mail that he'd said quite enough. I'd be surprised if it wasn't his university that ordered he refrain from saying more on the subject.
You see, the problem with the professor's argument is it doesn't stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. He sounds like a member of the old boy's club that has ruled Canada's universities for years and that doesn't like the fact that women are slowly encroaching on its turf.
According to the latest numbers available, just produced by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), 41 per cent of new faculty appointments were filled by women in 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Now look at supply. The professorship comes from the ranks of our PhD students. In 2007, more than 46 per cent of Canadian PhDs went to women. So, if the discrimination Prof. Irvine alleges was real, you'd have thought that the number of women hired to teach at our universities that year would be something like 50 to 55 per cent, not 41 per cent.
Instead, men were more likely to get these appointments.
"The numbers don't add up to support Mr. Irvine's position," says David Robinson, associate executive director of CAUT. "That might be the perception out there among some, or rather the misperception, but it's simply not true."
In 2007, only 20 per cent of full professors at Canadian universities were women. Yes, that is a reflection of historical hiring policies, but it is a black eye nonetheless. Women occupy just 30 per cent of tenured positions on our campuses, while filling 45 per cent of non-tenured jobs.
Female professors still make 5 per cent less than men doing identical jobs - a discrepancy that CAUT, which studied the wage parity issue, can't explain.
The fact is there isn't an affirmative action program in Canada like there is in the United States, where, in some cases, universities are directed to hire women and minorities to address notable and embarrassing gaps in their employee ranks.
I don't believe in affirmative action. Thankfully, there isn't a similar program in Canada. What there is, however, is a policy stating that all things being equal, schools should try and give female and minority candidates the job. Of course, it is rare that things are ever "equal" when it comes to filling a position at a university.
Nonetheless, because this policy exists, it is easy for a man who is passed up for a job in favour of a woman to assume he was a victim of identity politics. When, in fact, the reason he didn't get the job was because he lost out to a woman who was better qualified - as incredible and amazing as that may sound.
One hopes that UBC demands more intellectual rigour from its professors than that exhibited by Prof. Irvine in his provocative but ultimately lightweight treatise on discrimination.
Shameful is right.