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Canada Research Chairs program announces new, more ambitious equity targets

Changes affect four equity-seeking groups: women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous people and visible minorities.


After 13 years of slow progress towards its equity goals, the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program is redoubling efforts to improve diversity within the program. On July 31, the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat (TIPS) – which represents the three granting councils under which CRCs are allotted – announced more ambitious targets for representation of four equity-seeking groups: women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous people and visible minorities.

The new targets are an addendum to the program’s 2006 Canadian Human Rights settlement agreement, which grew from a complaint brought against the program in 2003 by eight female researchers, who argued that its poor representation of equity groups was discriminatory. The addendum includes both more ambitious goals and new accountability measures which represent “not just carrot, but some stick too,” for institutions that don’t make progress toward the new goals, according to David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

“In the past few years we’ve found not only that some institutions aren’t achieving their goals, but were even going backwards,” says Mr. Robinson. “It’s pretty clear that more needed to happen.”

The new targets will be based on each group’s representation in the Canadian population at large, as determined by the 2016 federal census. That means substantial leaps over the existing targets, which were instead tied to each group’s availability within the available pool of university researchers – a methodology that critics said reinforced broader under-representation of diverse groups in academia.

The target for women will go from 31 percent to 51 percent, persons with disabilities from 4 percent to 7.5 percent, Indigenous peoples from 1 percent to 4.9 percent, and members of visible minorities from 15 percent to 22 percent.    

“What I like about this is that it reminds us that the commitment is to all four groups,” says Malinda Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta who has researched equitable hiring in Canadian universities. “A lot of people have focused on the fact that the eight original complainants were women, and this has often been looked at as mostly about gender equity. The other groups have often been lost in the discussion.”

Dr. Smith says that’s partly because institutions failed to collect the data needed to show progress on the other three equity groups – and when they did, often used varying methodologies that couldn’t be compared across institutions. “Those in charge of collecting this data are often not diverse themselves,” she says, “and may be uncomfortable framing and presenting these questions. That leads to intransigence, so they raise issues of privacy and other concerns as to why they can’t collect it.”

The 2017 Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Action Plan began to address that problem by requiring institutions to outline how they aimed to achieve the original targets, publish those plans online, and achieve them by this coming December. Nominations for each equity group grew substantially after the EDI plan. By this June, representation met, or exceeded for the first time, the original targets.

That success wasn’t unqualified, however. For example, more senior Tier 1 chairs still exhibit far less diversity than Tier 2 chairs. Only 24 percent of Tier 1 chairs are women, and only 14 percent are members of visible minority groups. Less than one percent are Indigenous – just five out of 795. To address that gap, the country’s largest 15 universities, which collectively hold 70 percent of research chairs, will no longer be able to aggregate targets across tiers. Instead, they’ll need to show equivalent diversity among both.

The addendum also includes, for the first time, measures to support LGBTQ2+ faculty, including collecting self-identification data and developing best practices for recruiting and retaining LGBTQ2+ faculty.

Institutions that don’t meet targets will risk punitive action. “They risk losing funding for positions,” says Mr. Robinson. “You would hope that isn’t necessary, but it’s an important motivator to take this seriously.”

Universities will have until 2029 to meet the targets, at which point the numbers will be reviewed in light of more recent census data.

One critique of the equity-based approach is that it prioritizes diversity over excellence. That argument doesn’t pass muster with Alice Aiken, vice-president, research and innovation, at Dalhousie University. Dr. Aiken says Dalhousie has been working with a search firm to help the university avoid the tendency to go looking for candidates “in only the usual places,” in a conscious bid to bolster diversity in the faculty’s ranks.

“One of the things that just yanks my chain is when people say the first consideration has to be excellence,” says Dr. Aiken. “There are about 2,000 research chairs in Canada. If you can’t find 2,000 excellent scholars from all sorts of backgrounds, you’re not looking very hard.”

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  1. Ninad / September 11, 2019 at 14:13

    How will this legislation ensure that women, minorities and people with disability will be allowed to apply for these positions.
    CRC does not allow direct application and mandates nomination plus commitments from university leadership to support CRC nominees. Those sitting in leadership positions in Canadian universities make every available excuse and only nominate those which suit these leaders and will help advance the career of current leadership which is white males and some white females.
    The population of Canada is most diverse in the world yet leadership in academic institutions is white males and females.
    This CRC legislation is no different to the past and current immigration policies by which physicians are allowed in Canada and then made into cab drivers since no policy exists on facilitating these foreign graduates in Canadian healthcare.

  2. Heather / September 13, 2019 at 06:16

    When we talk about equity in universities, do funding formulas for promoting equity take into account the fact that women dominate in almost every field, except some of the STEM fields?

  3. Mary Lightbow / September 16, 2019 at 12:19

    The extreme lack of gender diversity in nursing, education departments, national defence, and public schools is huge but never mentioned or addressed in gender-based funding initiatives.

    Given the greater variance in male behaviours, the probability that the best researchers will be male is higher in an equal opportunity system and even higher in one that demands equal outcomes. The variability has a greater impact ib positions that require the best relative performance (politicians, researchers) versus positions that just require a certain level of competence (eg, lawyer, nurse).

    the equal gender outcome rules will result in a rise in observational studies (lots of surveys), a decrease in the use of scientific and quantitative methods (women dont do math), and a brain drain to other countries and private institutions that choose researchers based on their work rather than on their gender.

    to see how trudeau’s gender experiment works, dont watch the research grants. Instead, look at the tradionally gender-skewed fields of nursing, education, physics, math, and the military. We will likely see the same effect that resulted when scandinavian countries tried equal-outcomes instead of equal opportunity.