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First renewals of Canada Research Chairs stir up gender issue

by Rosanna Tamburri

As appointments to the Canada Research Chairs program come up for renewal for the first time since its inception four years ago, universities are being urged to use this as an opportunity to appoint more women to the program. And one male chair holder is urging his university to appoint a woman to the chair, instead of renewing him in the position.

In December the CRC secretariat began accepting nominations to renew Tier 2 positions that are nearing the end of their first five-year term. Universities are expected to submit more renewal nominations in 2005. "We have impressed upon universities that this could in fact be an opportunity to look at submitting women candidates for positions that might open up," said Julie Dompierre, CRC's senior program manager.

As of early January, universities had submitted 10 nominations for renewal out of a possible 57, and all were men.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers asked the CRC secretariat to delay renewals until the chairs secretariat has had a chance to investigate some of the grievances already raised about the program. A group of women professors filed a complaint two years ago with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, alleging the program discriminates against women and possibly some minority groups. The commission has appointed an investigator to review the complaint and determine whether the case should be referred to a tribunal.

Although the number of women awarded Canada Research Chairs has started to increase, in earlier rounds of appointments the proportion of women appointees was below that of women in academia. The complaint blamed the inequity in part on the two-tiered structure of the program. Tier 1 chairs are awarded to experienced researchers while Tier 2 positions are intended for promising junior faculty members. In some cases, though, universities appointed full professors to Tier 2 chairs, edging out potential women nominees.

Women account for about 27 percent of all faculty members but they make up a greater proportion of junior faculty; they account for about 30 percent of associate professors and more than 40 percent of assistant professors.

In the most recent round of appointments announced in November 2004, women were named to a record 35 percent of the 194 chairs awarded. Of the 1,348 chairs awarded since the program began four years ago, 270 chairs, or 20 percent, have gone to women.

Wendy Robbins, visiting scholar at CAUT and one of eight professors who filed the complaint, cheered the progress but urged the CRC and universities not to perpetuate existing inequities. "We think that renewing the chairs presents an opportunity to get it right," she said. "We're hoping that some of those [Tier 2 chairs] that went to full professors, who were men, would certainly be scrutinized carefully before they are renewed."

At least one male professor has offered to give up his Tier 2 chair to make way for a woman nominee. "Given the objectives of the program it would make more sense to have a younger indigenous woman scholar have this position," said Taiaiake Alfred, a Canada Research Chair in the Studies of Indigenous Peoples at the University of Victoria. Dr. Alfred said UVic's Indigenous Governance program has two First Nations scholars, both male, while the majority of their students are women. He added that as a tenured full professor, he no longer is suited for a Tier 2 position, but he acknowledged that this would also mean an extra position in First Nations studies at the university.

"We need a woman scholar here," he said, adding that he hopes his actions will set an example for others to follow.

The CRC secretariat has changed the nomination rules to discourage universities from nominating senior professors to Tier 2 chairs, but it doesn't intend to remove those appointees who don't meet the revised criteria, said Ms. Dompierre. "I think it would be unfair . . . to penalize those people at this point."

She noted that a few universities have already taken steps to correct some of these appointments. The secretariat is urging all universities to take advantage of the renewal process to do the same.

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