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Science Science minister mulls forcing universities to attract more female researchers

Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan says latest figures show nothing has changed, a status quo she can’t accept.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The federal science minister says universities aren't doing the heavy lifting to appoint more female research chairs, so she wants to force their hands.

On her way to give a speech Wednesday to university presidents in Montreal, Kirsty Duncan was handed the latest statistics on the number of men and women among applicants for new Canada Research Chair positions.

"They're dismal," Duncan said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "There were two times more men nominated than women."

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Read more: Gender equality: Who is minding the gap?

The Canada Research Chairs program was implemented 17 years ago to create 2,000 research positions at universities across the country to push for excellence in engineering, natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences. Canada spends $265 million a year on the program.

As of December 2016, women held 30 per cent of the 1,612 filled positions.

"The bar isn't moving and that can't continue," Duncan said, noting that she even ad-libbed part of her speech because of it: "I let them know I was very disappointed with the results."

In 2006, the Canada Research Chairs Program settled a complaint with the Canada Human Rights Commission brought by eight women who complained about discrimination in the awarding of the positions. In 2009, universities set targets to try and increase the number of research chairs who are women, visible minorities, indigenous people and people with disabilities. In 2012, universities had to start reporting their progress on these targets annually.

Duncan said if the voluntary program isn't working, she is open to forcing the issue — but would not say how that would work. Last fall she required new equity reporting and planning reports to be submitted with new applications for the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, after she discovered only one of the 28 chairs was female. That program focuses on science and technology research.

University of Regina president Vianne Timmons said university administrators are very aware of the diversity issue and that it is a problem across university programs, not just the Canada Research Chairs. She said the presidents had already met to discuss the problem Wednesday before Duncan's speech.

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"It's a real challenge," she said. "I hope the minister will recognize she doesn't have to force the issue."

Timmons said part of the challenge is that women, for a number of reasons, are not applying for these roles in the same numbers as men. One of the answers is that university leaders, both men and women, have to be more assertive in recruiting women and other underrepresented groups.

"I've been pretty aggressive in shoulder-tapping women and encouraging them to apply," she said.

Last fall, University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran and University of New Brunswick professor Wendy Robbins made a submission to the Fundamental Science Review panel set up by Duncan, in which they recommended a number of improvements to the equity program. That included denying grants to universities who failed to meet the equity targets.

Since there are no penalties for not meeting the targets, there is no incentive for universities to do anything, they argued. Robbins was one of the eight professors who brought the initial human rights complaint in 2006. Attaran filed a new complaint last year arguing there is evidence of systemic discrimination in the program, including against himself. His chair position was not renewed in 2015.

That case is still pending, though the Tri-Agency Institutional Programs Secretariat which administers the program, denies all of Attaran's allegations.

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Duncan said Canada lags behind other nations when it comes to women in science; only 36 per cent of PhDs in science in Canada are earned by women, compared with 49 per cent in the U.K. and 46 per cent in the United States.

In 1987, just 20 per cent of the people working in science, technology, engineering and math fields were female, a number that has grown to just 22 per cent today.

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