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Saturday, January 08, 2000Don't discriminate with grants
The following is a condensed version of a letter sent Wednesday to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) grant-selection committee members by Doreen Kimura, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.
Dear Colleague: As you may know, NSERC has reinstated the practice of giving certain beginning-faculty research awards exclusively to women. They provide a substantial contribution to the recipient's tenure-track salary for several years, as well as a research grant. I and many other scientists are deeply concerned at what amounts to flagrant discrimination in the distribution of a valuable research resource.
NSERC is the chief support in Canada for basic research in the natural sciences. It is important that funds be granted on the basis of excellence alone, not on the basis of ill-informed social engineering. I have corresponded with President Brzustowski of NSERC on this issue. His response is that women still suffer "significant barriers" to careers in science. This commonly held belief seems to be based almost entirely on the fact that the number of women researchers is lower in the sciences than in other fields. This discrepancy is particularly marked in the physical sciences and engineering, a pattern seen throughout the world.
There is no evidence, however, that this is due either to deliberate or "systemic" discrimination. I cannot, of course, claim there is no single instance in Canadian universities of such discrimination, but, as a general explanation for the lower numbers of females, it is untenable.
Several studies show that in the past two decades women have been preferentially hired in Canadian universities across several disciplines, including sciences.
There is also ever-increasing evidence that the lower representation of women in the physical sciences is largely a matter of self-selection on the basis of interests and talents. Women achieve outstanding scores on math aptitude tests in much smaller numbers than men do, and high mathematical ability is more critical for the physical than the biological sciences (where women have a representation approaching that of men). Even women very talented in math, however, often show strong preferences for more person-oriented occupations than men do and so do not gravitate to the physical sciences.
The argument that women students need female role models is also unsubstantiated. The number of female students at universities has increased dramatically over the past decade, undeterred by the fact that a majority of instructors was male. I know of no credible evidence that university women learn better under female tutelage, nor that women faculty are more likely to attract highly talented women students.
Across several years when similar NSERC awards were available to both men and women, of those individuals identifiable by sex, 57 went to women and 363 to men. This means that in a fairer competition, less than 15% of the awards went to women. Now, of course, women receive 100% of these exclusive awards. Last year, 22 women received grants, amounting to well over a million dollars of "girl money."
That many better-qualified men are being denied fellowships in the sciences is inescapable. How many talented male scientists are, as a result, lost to academic research in Canada we do not know; but if we wish to ensure that our scarce resources go to the best researchers, we must do away with discriminatory awards.
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