Globe and Mail

All's fair for the fair sex

When the folks at Wilfrid Laurier University advertised explicitly for women candidates to fill an opening in the psychology department, they unleashed an avalanche of outrage.

Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, August 14, 1999

Ottawa -- Professor Angelo Santi, who took over July 1 as chairman of the department of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., is learning that honesty may not be the best policy. You be the judge.

Last May, the department decided it had a problem -- stark underrepresentation of women in the faculty. Only three of 21 full-time positions, or 14.3 per cent, are held by females. Recently, the department offered three positions in a row to women, only to be turned down -- the applicants took offers from larger universities. To top it off, the vice-president of academics, Rowland Smith, was gently advised to take steps to address the imbalance in the department: The university's lawyer feared possible liability under federal employment-equity legislation.

So, in its next ad, for a developmental psychology professor, the department explicitly asked for a woman: "The Department is attempting to address a gender imbalance and therefore will hire a woman for this position, as allowed by the Special Program of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC)." (Section 14 of the code permits such programs on behalf of people who have experienced certain hardship or disadvantages to achieve equal opportunity.)

"It was better than taking male applicants and not treating them fairly," says Prof. Santi. In other words, he was being honest.

Then, as any chairman would, he circulated the ads electronically to various research groups. That's when the proverbial you-know-what began to hit the proverbial fan. Steven Lupker, a quiet, principled psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario, was one of the first to spot the ad. "You've got to be kidding! They're not even going to consider applications from men -- at this point in history?" he exclaimed. He sent a harsh E-mail to the OHRC and forwarded the advertisement to his colleagues in the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.

SAFS president, Dr. Doreen Kimura, a retired, internationally acclaimed scientist and professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, was "appalled" at the ad. After E-mailing Prof. Santi and sending the E-mail addresses of Rowland Smith and Wilfrid Laurier president Robert Rosehart to all SAFS members, she E-mailed Mr. Smith. SAFS declares its "consternation and dismay" at the ad, she wrote, reminding the vice-president that he had once boasted that "no such extraneous criteria such as race or sex had been employed" at Wilfrid Laurier during his tenure. She encouraged him to withdraw the ad.

Now SAFS is planning to challenge the department's use of section 14 on the grounds that it discriminates against men, discrimination that isn't justified by the plight of female psychology PhD graduates. "They are not a hardship group and WLU hasn't denied them equal opportunity," says SAFS board member Prof. Clive Seligman of Western.

Meanwhile, both Prof. Santi's and Mr. Smith's incoming E-mail flow increased. Prof. Seligman wrote to both men. "Exclusionary hiring is immoral because every Canadian deserves to be given a chance to compete for employment," he said in his letter to Mr. Smith. "If nothing else, you should appreciate that the intellectual credibility of the woman ultimately hired for this position will be tainted." He also E-mailed Ontario Premier Mike Harris, asking why he was allowing "this state-supported bigotry."

Tainted or not, female psychology PhD students and graduates are not exactly starry-eyed about their chances of landing tenure-track positions. Of the six I talked to, five thought the ad was a dandy idea and say they would apply if the position were in their discipline of psychology.

All of them feel there is a male bias in their department, one that means women are "slotted into part-time positions, getting $4,000 a course," says Deborah Ellison, who has a PhD from University of Western Ontario and teaches part-time at two different universities. "People tend to hire people who are like them, and a male faculty will hire those who re-enforce male values."

Julie Fraser, who is finishing her PhD at the University of Windsor, says she would apply for the job, stigma or no stigma: "I'd prove them wrong after I got the job."

"I resent the backlash that the ad has caused," says Jacquie Gagahan, who just landed a full-time job at Dalhousie, "because it suggests that professors are hired on the basis of their sex alone. That said, I would apply and I'm glad they did this. There is a gender inequality across North American universities where women tend not to get tenure-track positions, promotions like men do."

Predictably, Mr. Smith and Mr. Santi's colleagues rose to their defence, armed with statistics. The fact is, women make up about 61 per cent of the PhDs currently graduating in psychology in Canada and comprise only 25 per cent of university faculty across the country. Then there's that scrawny 14.3 per cent (it's since risen to 18 per cent with the addition of one more woman) in the psych department at Wilfrid Laurier. "These numbers call for swift action, and the university has taken it," applauded WLU's dean of social work, Jannah Mather, in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

Maybe so, Prof. Seligman and Ms. Kimura retort, but a hiring pool says nothing about how many women are actually applying to positions. Here, they claim, statistics show that not only are far fewer women applying than men, but the percentage of those who are hired compared to those who apply is far greater than for men.

"In other words, women are over-hired," says Dr. Kimura. "They are twice as likely to be hired," adds Prof. Seligman. (Statistics submitted to the Senate at Western show, for example, that while 20.5 per cent of applicants across all fields in 1996 were women, 42.9 per cent of those hired were women.)

Isn't the problem, then, the low applicant numbers? Mr. Lupker points out that, "By the time a woman gets her PhD, she inevitably has an older husband with a job that ties her down." Dr. Kimura guesses that "It has taken a long time for women to get to the point where they are interested in professional roles. They often have other priorities.

"But," she insists, "this [sociology] doesn't translate into systemic discrimination."

As a small Ontario university, Wilfrid Laurier is doubly disadvantaged -- the scarcity of women candidates across the country means that the best qualified usually go to the big universities. "We were experiencing great difficulty," says Prof. Santi.

That's no excuse for the ad, declares Dr. Kimura. "Why would a woman who didn't want to come to WLU before, now want to come with this ad? They are shooting themselves in the foot. The way to get people to come to your university is to make it a good university."

In another round, the Santi team changed tactics, arguing that women faculty members fill "an educational need" (to use Mr. Smith's language), that students benefit from an equitable learning environment and from same-sex role models.

Says Prof. Seligman: "Do we think our students are so fragile that they must be taught by someone of the same sex so that they can learn effectively?"

"This is a myth," says Dr. Kimura, arguing that the ad was designed to help female faculty, not students.

And on it goes.

Mr. Smith departed on holiday the day The Globe and Mail published his letter defending the ad. This left Prof. Santi and WLU president Rosehart with the task of going ahead and running it, while SAFS continues to hammer its point.

"If I want a job as a nurse and I'm not hired," says Prof. Seligman, "I can claim discrimination as a member of a hardship group -- men, on the grounds that if you look at the history of who are nurses, they are overwhelmingly women."

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