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Human Rights Complaint concerning the Canada Research Chairs Program

This story was published originally by the Ottawa Citizen on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2003, p. A5, and appears here with the permission of Jeff Pappone.

Research grant program cheats women: professor
Human rights complaint being prepared

By Jeff Pappone, The Ottawa Citizen

A $900-million government program meant to speed the development of university researchers discriminates against women and helps continue the long-standing history of sexism in academia, according to a New Brunswick professor preparing a human rights complaint against the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program.

Wendy Robbins claims the CRC creates unreasonable barriers to women faculty members and appoints a disproportionate number of men because the program's structure gives male professors an unfair advantage.

"The argument the CRC gives is that the program is not about equity, it's about excellence. They act like you can't find excellent women - it's hugely flawed, deeply insulting and we just had to blow the whistle on it," said the professor of English.

"When it was announced with none of the basic hiring mechanisms that we've come to expect, it seemed like it would be a huge step backward -- anybody who's working in the trenches with their feet on the ground on campuses could have predicted it."

Ms. Robbins and eight other women researchers from universities across the country plan to ask the Canadian Human Rights Commission to set up an inquiry into the chairs program's structure. If the commission refuses to act on the request, the group will file an official complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act against Industry Canada, the government department responsible for the CRC program. She was in Ottawa yesterday to consult with her lawyer and expects the group to approach the commission with their initial request next week.

Announced by the federal Liberals in the 2000 budget, the program has targeted the establishment of 2,000 research chairs in universities across Canada by 2005 to encourage research excellence.

At the root of the equity problem is the division of the chairs along funding lines for the three granting agencies - Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), she said.

This puts women at a disadvantage because the majority of female professors teach in the social sciences and humanities, which has received only 22 per cent of the total chairs. Science and engineering researchers have garnered 46 per cent of the funding, while health researchers received 32 per cent.

Women's access to the positions is further impeded by the CRC's refusal to enforce the regulations, which has allowed universities to bend the rules in favour of male full professors, Ms. Robbins said. CRC research grants are divided into two categories: Tier 1 targets experienced researchers with seven-year appointments and a $1.4 million research award; Tier 2 offers five-year, $500,000 chairs for emerging researchers.

"What's been happening is that universities have been appointing full professors to Tier 2 chairs so they're using the same pool of full professors for both levels and male professors who aren't appointed for Tier 1 chairs are taking Tier 2 spots that shouldn't be available to them," she said.

"I don't understand why the CRC didn't turn every one of those applications down -- if there's a weigh limit in a sporting event, somebody enforces the criteria."

Since the five-year CRC program began, only 112 of the 744 appointments or 15.1 per cent have gone to women researchers who make up about 26 per cent of all university professors. The distribution of women appointees is. equally divided among the three research areas.

Rene Durocher, CRC executive director, said he has taken steps to increase the number of women appointees, pushing universities to revise their strategy for recruiting women for future chairs.

"I'm very, very sensitive to this and we are working hard to improve the situation and reach a fair balance between men and women in the program -- it's one of the most difficult questions we face and we do recognize very frankly and openly that this is a problem," he said. "Some people are saying that the big difference between men and women generally is that men will fight more to obtain something - women want to be recognized for their merit and are less likely to fight than men."

The pressure on universities has paid off with the percentage of women in the next round of appointments hitting about 18 per cent, he said adding that because there are fewer women in the areas of health care, science, and engineering, it is difficult to get a fair number of women appointed to those chairs.

"You have to look at the pool of women in each sector and it's not the same -- in engineering there are less women so how can we balance the university that has a medical school and engineering with one that doesn't have one?" he explained. "We are not receiving enough women nominees, but once the names are here their rate of success is the same as men, so there's no discrimination here."

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