I found Professor Andrew Irvine’s recent comments about gender bias in academia rather intemperate. On Tuesday, in an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun, the University of British Columbia philosophy professor said that the real discrimination in our universities is against men, not women. He was countering the criticism from some quarters that all 19 of the new Canada Excellence Research Chairs had gone to men. A number of female professors (see here, for example) said this showed discrimination against women.
But Professor Irvine would have nothing of it. “Although some people have expressed concern that the first round of Canada Excellence Research Chairs have all gone to men,” he wrote, “much more common are university job searches that are biased in favour of women.” Most departments allow men to apply, he said, but almost always “give preference” to women.
Aside from a few vague anecdotes, the good professor provided no data to back up his claim. I wanted to do a bit of digging on my own to see if his assertions held up, but I didn’t have the time to follow up.
So I thank Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason for doing the work for me. In today’s paper, Mr. Mason calls the professor out, saying his argument “doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny.”
Mr. Mason writes:
According to the latest numbers available, just produced by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), 41 per cent of new faculty appointments were filled by women in 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Now look at supply. The professorship comes from the ranks of our PhD students. In 2007, more than 46 per cent of Canadian PhDs went to women. So, if the discrimination Prof. Irvine alleges was real, you’d have thought that the number of women hired to teach at our universities that year would be something like 50 to 55 per cent, not 41 per cent.
Instead, men were more likely to get these appointments.
That analysis is somewhat simplistic, but I still think it’s valid. It would certainly appear that there is no widespread plot to discriminate against men in hiring decisions.
As for the initial controversy – the awarding of all the 19 CERCs to men – I declare myself neutral. Is it troubling? Sure it is. Does it show overt discrimination against women? Almost certainly not. In fact, I find that suggestion ridiculous.
(Speaking of ridicule, that’s exactly the tactic used by a writer in the On Campus section of Maclean’s to skewer the controversy, penning a short satirical piece entitled, “Left-handers shut out of CERC appointments.”)
But I don’t entirely dismiss the concerns of some women academics that there may be, unintentionally, a lingering systemic bias in the system. That is possible. After all, academia was an old boy’s club for a very long time.
What are your thoughts and experiences?