Globe and Mail

Why men are asked not to apply

The need to have a woman fill the job posted by Wilfrid Laurier University is an educational need

ROWLAND SMITH, Wilfrid Laurier University
Letter to the Editor
Tuesday, August 10, 1999
The Globe and Mail

Margaret Wente's column On When Men Need Not Apply (July 27), on Wilfrid Laurier University's advertisement of a job in the psychology department open only to women, calls for further comment.

Ms. Wente writes, referring to a conversation with the department's chairman, that "as we talked, it became obvious that the gender imbalance in the department has absolutely nothing to do with discrimination."

First, no one has claimed that the situation in the Laurier psychology department has been caused by intentional discrimination. That does not mean that the situation should continue unchanged.

Those who deal with the legal issues of discrimination distinguish broadly among three kinds of discrimination: that caused by intention, that caused by mistake, and systemic discrimination, in which a group can claim, by observing the facts of a situation, that it has been anomalously disadvantaged. Laurier took extensive legal advice before approving a special program in psychology under Section 14 of the Ontario Human Rights Code. Federal employment-equity policy requires the university to make all reasonable efforts to reflect the gender balance in the broader applicant pool.

Four out of 22 tenure-stream members of the psychology department are female.

That is about 18 per cent. The data on recent PhD graduates in psychology indicate that more than 60 per cent are female. That is the pool with which the Laurier statistics have to be compared under various equity programs, including the Federal Contractors Program, governed by the federal Employment Equity Act. (For the purposes of this act, the university is a federal contractor.)

I am proud of the psychology department's decision to advertise under a special program and make it quite clear what it is up to. It needs women (for educational reasons) and is therefore restricting the search to women in order to avoid discriminating against male applicants who may not know of their needs and intentions and make applications believing that there are no such concerns. There are many such restrictive programs in place: job opportunities for people under 25, for instance. They produce no storms of protest.

Why is the need for women an educational need? The context in which humans learn is important to the learning process, and a university faculty that reflects the diversity of the population is an important part of that context. Of course women can learn from men and vice versa; of course men can mentor women and vice versa; but there is evidence that many people of both genders respond more readily to teachers and mentors of the same gender. Furthermore, the educational nuance of both groups is limited (as is the range of perspective) if the preponderance of instruction (and role models) comes from only one gender. This would apply even if the majority of students in the Laurier psychology department were male, which they are not.

Ms. Wente brushes this argument aside as "so feeble," and does the same with the accompanying argument: that departmental and university committees require female representation and that, as a result, the few women in psychology are overworked. This airy dismissal is one of the most amazing features of her column.

She does not have to agree with the argument, based on considerable evidence, that many female university instructors face problems unique to their gender in the balancing act they must perform among the demands of family, teaching, research and administration. But shouldn't she recognize that it exists? The fact that many (most?) take on extra administrative loads because of the need for gender representation is a problem of growing concern to most senior administrators, as we see our female colleagues of necessity take on more and more routine administrative chores that keep them from research.

Part of the problem in the column is the basic assumption that "qualifications" and "merit" are easily accessible, neutral terms on which we all agree. Yet in many academic areas, the perspective required is part of the qualification required. I believe this argument would be accepted in fields such as medicine and law -- that some females prefer female doctors and lawyers and that some males prefer male doctors and lawyers. The need for a balanced medical complement in a public hospital would be part of the professional needs of that hospital.

The analogy with universities is close at least in the opinion of many involved in the system and many who research it and write on it. When a choral group advertises for tenors only because it already has an abundance of sopranos, is it being discriminatory?

Rowland Smith is vice-president, academic, of Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.

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