If you enter almost any university department in Canada, you’ll see that the majority of students are women. This especially applies to disciplines such as social work, education, speech therapy, psychology or medicine. With the exception of pure and applied sciences (where 43 percent of students are women) and engineering (where 20 percent of students are women), 60 percent of university graduates in Canada are women.
However, they have a smaller majority at the post-graduate level, representing 54.4 percent of master’s students and 47.8 percent of PhD candidates. Among women in the professional academic community, 48 percent are assistant professors, 41 percent are associate professors and 26 percent are tenured professors.
Experts use the “leaky pipeline” metaphor to refer to this attrition phenomenon. “The more advanced the academic careers and the higher the level of education needed to get there, the more women we lose,” says Vincent Larivière, associate professor at Université de Montréal and Canada Research Chair in the transformations of scholarly communication. “The problem isn’t necessarily convincing women to get into the sciences, it’s convincing them to stay,” explains Paula Rochon, geriatrician and senior researcher at the Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto.
One would think that it was only a question of time before women found their place at the highest levels of academia. Not so, according to Dr. Larivière’s demographic analysis. Equality may not be attained for a long time. “According to current global trends, parity in the social sciences should be achieved in 2050. In natural sciences, it will be more like 2150.”
Bias created by many factors
Why do more women than men leave academia?
Firstly, as Dr. Larivière explains, there remains a bias favouring men over women. “Given two identical résumés, laboratory directors are more likely to hire a man than a woman, and will offer men a higher salary,” he continues, citing an American study published in 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences. “The fact that they can foresee a woman getting pregnant stops some people from hiring them,” says Ève Langelier, associate professor in the Université de Sherbrooke’s mechanical engineering department and holds the NSERC chair for women in science and engineering in Quebec. “Some fields are so competitive that it’s difficult to even imagine taking time off.”
It has also been documented that women are often less likely to go into a field as precarious as research, compared to men. Lacking confidence in their own skills, they also tend to delay becoming a tenured professor. In the lab, they are more often involved in experiments than in conceptualization, leading them to publish their work at a slower pace. Women want to stay near their families, so they travel less often than men, achieving less international recognition. Plus, pregnancy is often attributed to reduced productivity.
Changing the system
Dr. Rochon emphasizes that women have the right to be less productive at times and to take leave. “These things are normal,” she adds. “The main challenge is knowing what will be done [in terms of policy] in the coming decades to let us think along these lines.”
There are measures in place to facilitate the lives of researchers who are mothers, such as parental leave paid by funding agencies. Dr. Langelier recognizes that “During these leave periods, there is no production.” She believes that we need to review the evaluation system based on merit and results.
Last year, the federal government declared that universities must meet their target of women candidates to be eligible for the Canada Research Chairs. “This is great timing,” Dr. Langelier says. “We must take advantage.”