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Saint Mary's panel spurred by frosh chant aims to boost women's roles at university

‘Changing a culture is not a simple task,’ Saint Mary’s University president Colin Dodds says.

Paul Darrow/The Globe and Mail

An independent council studying ways to change sexist behaviour at Saint Mary's University is recommending the Nova Scotia institution hire more female professors and put more women in senior leadership roles.

The gender-equity recommendation is just one of 20 from the council, which also proposes that the university take more control of orientation-week events and address drug and alcohol problems by establishing alcohol-free places on campus. It also calls on the institution to conduct an annual, anonymous survey about school culture, with the results to be made public.

Last fall, Saint Mary's students and their leaders were videotaped participating in a chant about underage, non-consensual sex at an orientation event. The video went viral. Two student leaders resigned, and Saint Mary's president Colin Dodds created the council, which released its report Thursday.

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Dr. Dodds said he accepts the recommendations, which will roll out over three years. "Changing a culture is not a simple task," he said.

Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie University law professor and expert on bullying, was the chair of the council. "In a sense it is making the common sense but very important point … that women are more likely to put issues of sexual violence and safety in a higher-priority position than even well-meaning men might do," he said, about the recommendation on gender equity.

Laurel Broten, the former Ontario cabinet minister and a member of the council, says that as in politics or the boardroom, women bring a different perspective. "The research tells us that there is a broader perspective and different perspective.… I lived that certainly around a cabinet table where we had many women holding prominent roles, and I think we made different decisions than if we had not been there," she said.

Prof. MacKay notes, however, that the council had only three months to report and did not do an analysis of how Saint Mary's compares to other universities. The report shows that of the school's faculty members, 101 are female and 173 are male. Since 2008, 28 females have been hired compared to 43 males.

The report also suggests strong female leadership in departments, such as athletics. Prof. MacKay says studies have found that universities with a significant athletic focus "sometimes have higher issues of sexual violence …"

"We did in our research find that the so-called jock culture can be a component of making them [campuses] less safe places," he said.

Bonnie McElhinny, an associate professor of gender studies at the University of Toronto, said hiring women on campus is "often itself a way of addressing sexism on campus."

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"In my experience on campus there is no reason why women alone should be speaking out about the structures of sexism," Prof. McElhinny said. "I have seen a variety of actors speak out, but overwhelmingly the questions that I have seen get raised on campus about sexism, racism and homophobia are coming from people who have had a set of experiences with those issues."

The report also highlights misunderstanding around consent. "No is not always regarded as no," Prof. MacKay said. "We certainly heard some information about the significant peer pressure for young women to be engaged in sex – that if you're not doing that, what is your problem?"

This issue is not unique to Saint Mary's. University of British Columbia students participated in the same chant at their orientation week this year. UBC officials will review the Saint Mary's report. "It seems that particular offensive chant is pretty widely spread," Prof. MacKay said.

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