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Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences urged to feature all-women speaker lineup

University of Regina president Vianne Timmons is one of the leaders of a national initiative to increase the number of women among the senior ranks of universities.

Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press

For all the scholarly panels that have found themselves ridiculed for failing to find a single female presenter, Vianne Timmons, the president of the University of Regina, has set a different example.

One of the leaders of a national initiative to increase the number of women among the senior ranks of universities, Dr. Timmons asked this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences to ensure that its public speakers’ series features an all-female slate.

“I was thinking about the challenges of academia, and I said I want to have all women speakers. Someone responded, ‘I don’t think we can find that many women who are big thinkers,’ and I said, ‘That’s why we’re doing it, because there are many,’” Dr. Timmons said.

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A recent study found that only a quarter of speakers across thousands of conferences were female. One all-female speaker series “doesn’t even come close to balancing the books,” Dr. Timmons said.

Held at the University of Regina this year, Congress has long been a destination for scholars to share their research and find new collaborators. Starting on Saturday, about 8,000 academics will spend the week delivering thousands of papers and networking over cocktails supplied by academic publishers and universities. While much of the event is open only to registered participants, the Big Thinking lecture series, featuring five speakers, is free to the public and aims to dispense with discipline-specific terminology in favour of provocative questions about big societal challenges.

The concerns of this year’s Big Thinking speakers – which include historian Margaret McMillan talking about the relationship between war and society, and UN high-level commissioner Alaa Murabit on women’s role in peace-building – are not radically different from those of prior years. Past talks have been on reconciliation, change and community, international security and social media.

Having women hold the floor entirely, however, sends a message to other organizations and to a new generation of emerging scholars, organizers say.

“When people have been marginalized in scholarship, it hurts the quality of our ideas,” said Gabriel Miller, the executive director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which organizes every year’s Congress. “It’s not just the right thing to do because it’s helping to correct an unfairness, it’s the right thing to do because it will make us smarter,” Mr. Miller said.

Concerns about why academia can be a difficult place to navigate for women predate the revelations of harassment and discrimination that have to come to light in the wake of the #metoo movement. Fighting “manels,” the term given to all-male speaker panels at conferences, is part of that wider battle for equity, one of the series speakers said.

“There are a number of important social movements right now, and in that context we have a much smaller movement of putting an end to manels,” said Françoise Baylis, the Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy at Dalhousie University. Dr. Baylis’s talk will focus on all the things that can go wrong when bioethicists engage with governments and the public, but will also encourage scholars not to seek refuge from controversy.

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“I think of myself as a public servant, therefore the knowledge that I generate belongs to Canadians,” she said.

For Melina Laboucan-Massimo, giving a talk during Congress is a chance to demonstrate how scholarship can improve activism. Ms. Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation, raised funds and spearheaded a 20.8-kilowatt solar installation in her home of Little Buffalo, in Northern Alberta.

The project followed a 2011 oil spill in her home community that prompted her to pursue a master’s degree in Indigenous governance at the University of Victoria.

“Academia is very important, but I will talk about how do we utilize academia to empower solutions to the climate crisis,” she said. Having an all-female panel feels completely natural, she added. “From an Indigenous perspective, women are the backbone of community, we are the life-givers.”

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