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Industry Minister Tony Clement and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon hold a news conference in Ottawa on May 18, 2010. (The Canadian Press)
Industry Minister Tony Clement and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon hold a news conference in Ottawa on May 18, 2010. (The Canadian Press)

Why women were shut out of Canada's science-star search Add to ...

It's an image the federal government didn't want you to see: 19 top-notch researchers recruited in an international talent search and not a woman among them.

In the weeks leading up to the announcement of Canada's success in attracting academic stars, the event was shifted from Ottawa to campuses across the country in part to improve the optics, say individuals familiar with the planning.

Industry Minister Tony Clement also asked three leading female academics on friendly terms with the government to probe what happened. Their report, obtained by The Globe and Mail, finds no deliberate attempt to shut out women, but concludes the tight deadlines for the competition, the areas picked for research and a competition where candidates on the short list had only a 50 per cent chance of winning probably all worked against female candidates.

We didn't know we had a problem. It just never occurred to us that it would be 19 men and zero women. Industry Minister Tony Clement

"It was a combination of factors," Mr. Clement said in an interview. "We didn't know we had a problem. It just never occurred to us that it would be 19 men and zero women. I've got to say it was a total shock to me."

In fact, the numbers were worse. Not only were there no women in the final 19 researchers selected as the first Canada Excellence Research Chairs, there were none in the short list of 36 proposals either.

The federal government has already faced a successful human-rights challenge over the lack of women awarded grants under its Canada Research Chair program. Women's representation at the highest levels of research is a hot topic in Canada, and on campuses around the world, especially as their numbers increase at lower levels. How to improve women's showing in future competitions for these new elite grants without sacrificing merit was the job given to the report's authors. They delivered their advice at the end of April.

"We want to do it right," Mr. Clement said. "I realized there was an issue. We went to some people who we could trust to look at the issue. They came up with sensible recommendations. We can implement those sensible recommendations."

The authors - University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, head of the Council of Canadian Academies, and granting council head Suzanne Fortier - suggest five actions to improve female participation. These include introducing a "rising stars" category, as well as one as for "established leaders," a move that would change the aim of a program billed as a magnet for top talent.

"You are still looking at excellence, it is just at a different stage of their career," Mr. Clement said, conceding that this would in some respects parallel the existing Canada Research Chair program.

The $200-million federal recruitment drive offered $10-million over seven years to up to 20 researchers, and was directed at specific areas that fit the government's innovation agenda. Those areas, and the specialties favoured such as work to help the auto industry, were geared to disciplines dominated by men, the study finds. It recommends an "open" category be considered.

The academic "old boys club," also was a factor. With limited time to find and court top researchers, universities resorted to "informal processes" to find candidates, the study finds. "These informal outreach processes may have involved senior researchers identifying potential nominees from among their international peers," it says.

Senior women also may be more reluctant than their male colleagues to move for personal reasons or to enter a competition where the odds of success were 2 to 1, the report says, citing U.S. studies.

At the University of Manitoba, vice-president of research Digvir Jayas says that's exactly what they experienced. They did approach a highly qualified female candidate for their chair, but she withdrew her name for personal reasons, he said.

Putting fewer candidates on the short list and increasing the search time could encourage female participation, the study finds.

The low number of female senior researchers requires further study, the report says, suggesting the Council of Canadian Academies be given that task.

"Let's make sure we can do things within the boundaries of merit that will give a possibility of finding meritorious women in the future,' Mr. Clement said.

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