Advocates for equitable hiring practices in Canadian higher education are commending the prestigious Canada Research Chairs program for introducing new guidelines that aim to curb bias against women in the program’s nomination process.
Recently, the CRC added guidelines on how to limit unconscious bias in its package on reference-letter writing. Michèle Boutin, executive director of the CRC secretariat, said the new section was inspired by a pair of studies (one by the American Association of University Women in 2010, the other by Frances Trix and Carolyn Psenka of Wayne State University in 2003) that show letters of recommendation for female candidates tend to be shorter or incomplete; include gendered terms such as “lady,” “mother,” or “wife”; use fewer “standout” adjectives like “excellent” or “outstanding”; focus on personal qualities over skills and achievements; and offer more “doubt raisers” such as faint praise or negative language. These biases tend to appear in letters of recommendation regardless of the referee’s gender.
“Because of the importance of reference letters in the CRC nomination process [nominees require three letters of support], it was important to bring this to the attention of letter writers,” Ms. Boutin said.
Among the guidelines by the CRC, referees are encouraged to keep feedback specific to the requirements of the position; to avoid descriptors that play into stereotypes of women as agreeable, maternal, sympathetic; to use formal titles and surnames instead of given names, and to consider “whether your letter unintentionally includes gaps, or doubt-raising, negative or unexplained statements (e.g., ‘might make an excellent leader’ versus ‘is an established leader’).”
According to Janice Dodd, a professor of physiology and pathophysiology and of gender studies at the University of Manitoba, a common barrier to women’s professional advancement in academia is a negative perception of their expertise and competence. That’s why these new guidelines are so important, said Dr. Dodd. “Your letters have to be able to say, ‘This person has enormous potential.’ And if you’re not using words like ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding,’ how are people going to see that potential?”
Though she has generally noticed the addition of guidelines for how referees and review panels should consider extended interruptions in a candidate’s career for childbirth, illness, caretaking or other reasons, this is the first time Dr. Dodd has seen guidelines on unconscious bias explicitly stated from a granting, research or postsecondary institution.
For her part, Lynne-Marie Postovit said the guidelines do a good job of addressing a form of discrimination that is widespread and yet “hard to get at” since it is generally unintentional. Ideally, these guidelines would be adopted across the tri-council of federal research granting agencies, said Dr. Postovit, an associate professor in the University of Alberta’s department of oncology. (The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council jointly stated that a tri-council agency working group is looking into measures to promote equity in their various programs and processes.)
Guidelines addressing unconscious bias are just one step in a larger set of initiatives the CRC has introduced in an effort to improve diversity among chairholders, particularly among groups of people identified as historically underrepresented in government programs: women, Aboriginal people, people with disabilities and people belonging to a visible minority. About four years ago the CRC began working with individual universities to set targets to improve representation of designated marginalized groups among their chairholders. These targets are reviewed and revised every three years.
Additionally, the CRC introduced random monitoring of the nomination process, which looks at how the position was advertised and how the process was handled internally, among other details. An annual recognition program then spotlights one university’s exemplary practices in recruiting a diverse talent pool. The selected institution is given a platform for discussing what it has done to improve access to its chair positions as well as the barriers they’ve encountered along the way. In previous years the program has singled out the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria and this year recognized Lakehead University.
On the flipside, when “deficiencies” are identified in a nomination process, the CRC reports back to the institutions with its concerns “in the hopes that this will improve in the future,” Ms. Boutin said. She said all these developments have encouraged institutions to work on effective equity hiring practices and have created a “dialogue” around the issue of equitable hiring.
The CRC began committing itself to equity practices in earnest after facing allegations of gender-based discrimination. In 2003, a group of eight women filed a complaint of gender
discrimination with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The case was settled in 2006, and it required the CRC to apply the federal government’s policies on equitable hiring and anti-discrimination to the award process. The CRC came under fire again in 2008 when its multimillion-dollar Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, intended to draw the highest calibre of international researchers to Canada, failed to name a single woman among its first batch of 19 recipients. (The first and only woman CERC was named in September 2013. Luda Diatchenko, who holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Human Pain Genetics at McGill University, is one of 22 CERC holders.)
Following these incidents, the Council of Canadian Academies struck an expert panel (which included Dr. Dodd and Dr. Postovit) to issue a report on the status of women researchers in Canada. Published in 2012, Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension outlines a number of problems women face in furthering their academic careers and offers recommendations for fixing the “leaky pipeline,” including “the cumulative effects of sexism, stereotyping and recruitment and evaluation biases [that] can lead to the undervaluation of women researchers’ excellence.”
Both Dr. Dodd and Dr. Postovit say they are cautiously optimistic about the various changes to the CRC program, but hope to see more targeted initiatives. “In the last round there were supposed to be Canada Excellence Research Chairs in areas that were more likely to capture women candidates, and despite that initiative, we still only seem to have one woman out of 22 who hold what we call ‘super chairs.’ We have to be very, very aware of continuing to exclude women from these prestigious and important positions,” said Dr. Dodd.
As of October 2014, women occupy 26.8 percent of all filled Canada Research Chairs (449 women out of 1,667 chairs). More women hold Tier 2 chairs for emerging scholars (315 out of 856 positions) than Tier 1 chairs for established scholars (134 of 811 positions).