Allison Sekuler is the Sandra A. Rotman Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and vice-president, research, at Baycrest Health Sciences.
"Because it's 2015." These three simple words captured the case for gender equity in Justin Trudeau's first cabinet appointments.
Then and now, the economic case for equity is compelling. Studies link greater work force diversity to improvements in morale and productivity. The McKinsey Global Institute suggests that by 2025 global annual GDP could increase by up to $28-trillion (U.S.) – equivalent to the U.S. and Chinese economies combined – by equalizing female and male workforce participation.
Although the economic case is clear, it clearly is not sufficient. Only 26 CEOs of S&P 500 companies are women. Only three presidents among Canada's 15 most research-intensive universities are women. Only about one in four of Canada's science, technology, engineering, and mathematics jobs are filled by women. This is not where we hoped we would be two years after hearing, "Because it's 2015."
Many people mistakenly believe that the drive toward diversity means diminished quality. In fact, the opposite is true. Research has shown that people think and behave differently when they interact with more diverse groups, leading to more open-mindedness, more deliberate consideration of possible outcomes, and more effective problem-solving.
Such results aren't surprising. By definition, increased diversity means a greater range of perspectives and ideas: key ingredients for curiosity, creativity, and innovation. The benefits of equity, diversity, and inclusivity are particularly clear in the context of research.
Consider just a few examples that illustrate how an inclusive approach can enhance our understanding of the world and our quality of life.
Integrating traditional Inuit knowledge about ice patterns into environmental science led to more accurate models for weather prediction in Canada's North.
A black female computer scientist discovered that standard face detection algorithms failed for faces with dark skin tones. Because face detection is used in an increasing range of everyday applications, addressing this failure will have positive impacts on the lives of racialized individuals.
About 76,000 Canadians are diagnosed with dementia each year, and about two-thirds are women. For many years, though, this sex difference was ignored. More recent research comparing Alzheimer's in men and women has shown that menopause-related hormonal changes and sex differences in gene expression may play a role in the over-representation of women with Alzheimer's. Identifying sex differences in the cause and progression of the disease can lead to more effective treatments for everyone.
Whether it's addressing the Alzheimer's crisis, developing computer programs, or understanding climate change, engaging women and other under-represented groups in the process makes the world a better place. An increase in diversity does not decrease research quality. On the contrary, we cannot maximize quality without equality; and we cannot have equality without first addressing issues of equity, diversity, and inclusivity.
Obviously, individuals from one group can and do make discoveries relevant for other groups. However, researchers from different backgrounds bring their unique experiences, interests, and perspectives to bear. But how can we increase the diversity of Canada's STEM work force, when, for example, only 13 per cent of Canada's practicing professional engineers are women? Critically, culture and role models play a significant role in the development of scientific interest.
In some regions of the world, such as Central Asia, roughly equal numbers of women and men work in scientific research and development. This success in equity is self-reinforcing: when fields are diverse, more youth can see a future for themselves in those roles and fields.
As federal Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan recently noted at the Montreal Gender Summit, "If we want to build an innovation nation, we have to include everyone."
Across Canada, programs are being developed to increase diversity of researchers to build that innovation nation. New guidelines require universities not just to set, but to meet, diversity targets for prestigious Canada Research Chairs. Implicit bias training is incorporated into hiring and grant review. Applicants are encouraged to report accomplishments and impacts that go beyond traditional measures of merit. Outreach programs promote STEM to youth from under-represented groups.
These initiatives are all a good start. But the fact that even these modest steps have been met with resistance by some, means we have much further to go in creating the culture of inclusivity – and innovation – in Canada.
The time to act is now. After all, it's almost 2018.