Vancouver Sun

Friday 17 September 1999

Universities hiring, but white males need not apply

Janet Steffenhagen
Vancouver Sun

When Canadian universities set out to hire faculty, the message is clear: while merit is important, the deciding factor may well be gender, race or physical disability.

Some institutions, including the University of B.C. and Simon Fraser University, even tell men not to bother applying for certain positions, or to expect to earn less than members of so-called equity groups.

For example, a recent UBC ad for an assistant law professor advises potential candidates: "Appointment at a more senior rank may be considered for a member of a designated equity group with exceptional qualifications."

That means female, minority or disabled candidates could expect to be hired as an associate or full professor at a higher salary but others could not, even if they also have exceptional qualifications.

The universities say their goal is a noble one -- to change the white, male face of academia to one that better reflects the mix of students graduating with PhDs.

But they are facing a growing backlash from critics who say these affirmative action programs are blatantly discriminatory and were set up to address a problem that no longer exists.

The clash comes as universities are bracing for a whopping number of retirements over the next 10 years, along with unprecedented competition here and in the U.S. for top-quality faculty.

At Simon Fraser, 300 of 750 faculty members plan to retire before 2010, making the recruitment of excellent staff one of the biggest challenges of the coming decade.

Although affirmative action programs have been de rigueur at universities for many years, they came under new scrutiny this summer after Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., advertised for a psychology professor but restricted its search to women.

The university said it was trying to address a gender imbalance in a department where only three of 14 full-time academics were women.

It wasn't the first time a university had advertised for women only, but it touched off a flood of criticism from academics, commentators and civil libertarians, who insisted there is no longer any reason for hirings based on gender or race.

The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship led the charge, with president Doreen Kimura, an internationally acclaimed scientist who is now retired, warning that the Wilfrid Laurier action is just part of a cross-country campaign to undermine the principle of merit in the hiring of faculty members.

She said studies indicate the proportion of female applicants who are hired for university jobs in all fields is greater than the proportion of male applicants who land jobs.

(Although there are no similar studies of minorities, Kimura said there is also no evidence that they are under-represented when faculty appointments are compared to applicant numbers.)

"For the past two decades, the data suggest that women have been overhired at universities -- hired in percentages higher than you would predict from their representation in the appropriate applicant pool," she said.

"Feminists keep on telling us that women are being discriminated against . . .and this is keeping women out of jobs, including academic jobs. But now data are available suggesting that is not the case."

That means some women are being hired over better qualified men, and it means some qualified women will be unfairly viewed by their peers as "equity" appointments even when they are not, she added.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association also opposes affirmative action programs that discriminate, saying preference in hiring should be given to members of a certain group only when there is a current, entrenched bias in the hiring process or when other reasonable attempts to root out that bias have failed. Since those conditions do not exist in B.C. universities, there is no principled justification for their special efforts to recruit women, executive director John Westwood said.

The advertisements that most riled the association were recent ones seeking women-only applications for tenure-track positions in UBC's physics and astronomy department and SFU's biological sciences department.

Westwood wrote a letter of complaint, but to no avail.

The universities argue that both numbers and dollars are on their side. Firstly, they say there are too few women on faculty in those fields and, secondly, the federal government pays part of the salaries through a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council award if women are hired.

SFU executive director Gregg Macdonald said the universities do not lower their requirements for academic excellence when they hire under the NSERC program. The only difference is that the applicant pool is much smaller because it's restricted to women.

Asked if that means the best candidate for the job might not even be in the running, Macdonald hesitated before saying: "Hypothetically, sure. Yeah, logically that would have to be the case."

That is defensible, however, if one believes there are social benefits to drawing more women into an area where few are currently employed, he added.

"If you agree with that, then this is an acceptable program."

Sharon Kahn, a UBC faculty member who is also associate vice-president equity, said the university decided 10 to 15 years ago that roughly one-third of new tenure-track hires should be women because that is the percentage of female PhD graduates in Canada.

On occasion, faculties are given permission to offer special incentives to attract women and minorities, if they can demonstrate that a better mix would enhance the department, she added.

"Excellence and merit are dynamic concepts that departments have to define for themselves at any given time," Kahn said, adding that although there have been several such ads, only a few have brought results.

Kahn says employment equity is more than just numbers. It is an attempt to be a more inclusive community, attract new talent and level the playing field for women who are balancing careers and motherhood.

Does it amount to reverse discrimination? Kahn says it doesn't, even when applications are rejected or promotions denied because the candidate is a white male. "We're eliminating groups of people who we believe we already have at the university.

UBC faculty president Mary Russell supports efforts to make the faculty a better reflection of the PhD mix, arguing that students need to see professors that represent their gender or minority status.

"It makes a big difference to students in terms of their own aspirations and their role models," she added.

But Andrew Irvine, a UBC philosophy professor and past president of the civil liberties association, says such social goals get in the way of a university's prime mission -- to promote knowledge.

And he suggested universities are becoming more aggressive in their efforts to recruit women and minorities.

"Those of us criticizing these things believe factors such as race and gender have been elevated above merit," said Irvine, who has studied university hiring patterns and concluded that the percentage of female appointments exceeds the percentage of female applicants.

He admits statistics such as his don't always tell the whole story. But he says with the data now available "it would be uphill work for advocates of employment equity to prove that women are being discriminated against in Canadian universities today.

"All the evidence seems to point to the contrary."

Linda Sproule-Jones, director of equity issues at the University of Victoria, said all universities are trying to make their faculties more representative of the qualified workforce, as defined by Statistics Canada.

When departments in her university have an opening, they consider, in addition to academic criteria, whether they are short of women or minorities -- based on workforce statistics and student enrolments.

If, for example, half the students are women but the department has no female faculty, that will be regarded as a deficit, she said.

"The more diversity you have, the wider perspectives you have brought to bear. There is more creativity, opportunities to see things in a different way, expansive thinking. That's just common sense."

Once in a while, departments advertise for a specific equity group, as permitted by the B.C. human rights commission. That is usually done to attract First Nations candidates for programs that are focused on First Nations issues, she explained.

The new University of Northern British Columbia believes it may have a record number of females on faculty, at 40 per cent.

"We really wanted to hire women," explained Deborah Poff, vice-president academic. "There are a lot of qualified women [and] they're more than half the population. Why would you not want to reflect your population?"

Hiring women doesn't mean compromising quality, she said, but it does mean a woman might get the edge when competing for a job with an equally qualified man.

Poff said UNBC, as a new university, had an easier time implementing employment equity than established universities because they have tight budgets and limited staff turnover.

But the coming retirement bulge will give the others a chance to bring in a more diverse group, rather than "just having the white guys."

Universities say they are not only committed to employment equity on principle but are required to help women and minority groups or risk losing federal contracts.

The Employment Equity Act of 1996 says any large institution that bids on federal contracts worth $200,000 or more must have an employment equity program.

Neil Gavigan, director of labour standards and workplace equity programs with Human Resources and Development Canada, said universities are expected to make efforts to recruit more women.

But they aren't told how to do that, and no university has ever been punished for non-compliance, he said in an interview from Ottawa.

"Organizations are looked at, not from the point of view of what the hard and fast number is but what a good-faith effort is."

Abdou Saouab, a senior policy analyst at HRDC, suggested an honest women-only advertisement might be preferable to an open ad by a university that knows full well it will only hire a woman.

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