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Professor Ninan Abraham, left, talks with Department of Microbiology and Immunology graduate student Jessica Silva at the UBC campus in Vancouver, B.C., February 13, 2020. UBC's Faculty of Science is trying to increase the diversity in their staff and Professor Ninan Abraham is the faculty's lead on equity.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Thirty-four years ago, Ninan Abraham arrived in Halifax. He was an international student and was relieved to meet others who looked like him on campus. But he didn’t see that diversity being reflected among professors and instructors.

Fast-forward to today, he now lives in Vancouver and is a professor of immunology in the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia. He’s also working to make sure the next generation of students see more diversity within faculty ranks.

“I recognize the position of influence I occupy,” Prof. Abraham said.

The faculty has been working on the issue of improving its staff diversity over the last 10 years, and UBC isn’t alone in taking those initiatives.

Other campuses such as McGill University and the University of Alberta have launched programs to support under-represented students. For Dr. Abraham, it’s important to provide a supportive space for groups that have been marginalized in the past so that they have a better chance of succeeding.

He attributes the Faculty of Science’s progress on this issue to a series of changes his predecessors instituted, including looking at who gets to do the hiring. “Search committees can’t be just male,” he said.

Another change has been the adoption of self-identification surveys to track its applicant pool and existing faculty. This way Dr. Abraham can see the different levels of diversity among the different levels of employment: who applied, who got shortlisted, who got an offered and who got hired.

“Evaluating each step is quite telling of how we are doing,” Prof. Abraham said, adding that it is possible then to see where the problem lies.

He also said universities must ensure their search shortlists are long enough. “If you are interviewing two to three candidates, you are skewing the deck against underrepresented groups.

According to UBC data gathered in 2017, 18 per cent of full professors in the science faculty were women, a substantial increase from 2008. Women made up 22 per cent of faulty in the research stream, a 6 per cent increase compared to 2009. However, the average hiring rate for racialized individuals was lower compared to the applicant pool. (The faculty did not start tracking data on hiring of racialized staff until 2017.)

Sara Jane-Finlay, associate vice-president of the Equity & Inclusion Office at UBC says it’s crucial to consider bias and how it has entered and may still be entering the search process when hiring.

“We reflect on some of the ways there have been barriers in the past, how to reduce them to make an inclusive environment for those who have been historically systemically marginalized and oppressed within higher education,” Ms. Finlay said.

To tackle the issue across the university, each faculty has a staff member responsible for diversity initiatives. They are encouraged to share best practices and discuss issues so other programs can learn and also to foster cross-collaboration.

SFU is also taking similar initiatives to better understand and serve its diverse faculty and staff. In November, 2019, it launched the Diversity Meter, a survey that allows staff to self-report their different identities in partnership with the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI). The results will be made public in March.

Both universities see the importance of tracking this data, however, there are privacy concerns especially in the case of marginalized groups who already face hurdles.

In SFU’s diversity survey, for example, the baseline is a minimum of 10 responses in a respective category otherwise the data won’t be displayed. Another practice is to de-identify the data by removing any details that may make it possible to recognize a particular person.

For Malinda Smith, political science professor at University of Alberta, it’s critical that universities do work to responsibly collect faculty diversity data. However, she still sees data gap as a crucial obstacle.

Prof. Smith strongly believes that universities need to use an intersectional lens when talking about diversity and inclusion.

“When we say the women are improving, what we’re not saying is that is not true for racialized minority women, not true for Indigenous women,” said Dr. Smith, who is also a past president at Academic Womens’ Association (AWA) and began conducting research alongside Nancy Bray, communication officer at AWA, on diversity in leadership at a group of Canadian research institutes.

Their 2018 results showed that strides have been made toward greater gender equity, however little improvement has been made for racialized and Indigenous peoples, and more gaps still exist for those who are LGBTQ or those living with disabilities.

Moving forward, Dr. Smith is pushing for better metrics, more efficient tracking tools, and more importantly an accountability mechanism to ensure universities are proactively working toward their commitment to equity, fair representation, and elevating excluded voices.

At UBC, Prof. Abraham also recognizes that more work needs to be done and the multiple layers that exist when tackling diversity gaps.

“Measuring diversity is a good indicator of representation but it’s not the same thing as inclusion. If you have a great diversity but they are not involved in decision-making you don’t have inclusion.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated Dr. Malinda Smith's title and Dr. Ninan Abraham's field of study. Also Sara-Jane Finlay's name was misspelled.

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