Globe and Mail

Clearing the path for women on the academic ladder

James Lawrence Peter Butrica
Letter to the Editor
Wednesday, August 11, 1999
The Globe and Mail

St. John's -- Re Why Men Are Asked Not To Apply (Commentary -- Aug. 10):

The effort of defending the indefensible can be difficult and Rowland Smith, a vice-president at Wilfrid Laurier University, shows the strain when he tries to explain why he supports the idea of openly discriminating against men in a case of hiring at his university.

First he explains that "four out of 22 tenure-stream members of the psychology department," or about 18 per cent, are women, while "the data" (the source of which is left undisclosed) show that "more than 60 per cent" of recent PhD graduates in psychology are women.

Apart from the difficulty of comparing apples (people hired in the past from the past pool) and oranges (the current pool), one would think that, other factors being equal, a woman probably would get the job in any case if more than half the applicants were women, but apparently those odds are not good enough.

Consider the further implications of Dr. Smith's position: Will the psychology department hire only women until "more than 60 per cent" of the department is female; that is, will the next six or seven new appointees in that department be women, regardless of qualifications or departmental balance in specializations? Once the department is more than 60 per cent female, will the department hire only men until that imbalance is addressed? (Somehow this seems unlikely.) And will other departments be required to follow suit?

He next explains proudly but delicately that this is a case of "restricting" a search rather than "discriminating." I gather that he has read 1984, since he has absorbed its lessons so well.

Finally, he offers the argument that "many people of both genders respond more readily to teachers and mentors of the same gender." In other words, this act of discrimination is justified by the need to have students "feel good" in the classroom, regardless of the quality of the instruction they receive.

And what of the issues he has not addressed? Please explain, Dr. Smith, why a taxpayer-funded university should spend its money to hire anyone other than the best-qualified person available (he seems to imply toward the end that simply being female constitutes a more important qualification than any of those conventionally regarded as important, such as publication record, originality of research, teaching ability, etc.), and why students should pay their tuition money to take a course from someone who was hired on the basis of sexual characteristics, and why an administration would want to stigmatize a professor with the brand of being known as someone hired because of her sex? Of course, the professor herself might not mind this, since one assumes that she would be assured of rapid progress through the ranks whether or not she publishes or teaches well: After all, she is there to make people feel good, and the higher her rank, the better they'll feel.

But, for me, the real curiosity here is the silence of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. If it fails to criticize this destructive move (which, in my opinion, merits the censuring of the Wilfrid Laurier administration), it will lose whatever credibility it still possesses as a body that upholds principles of fair hiring in the university.

Department of Classics, Memorial University,

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