Image: Canadian Film Centre/Flickr

Canada Is Considering Gender Quotas For Major Research Positions

The Naylor report examines problems faced by young researchers who felt shut out of the system.

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Apr 11 2017, 12:00pm

Image: Canadian Film Centre/Flickr

A major report on the state of Canadian science research and funding is calling for gender targets and quotas to help address the lack of diversity that still pervades the academic fields of science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM. It's also tackling the long-simmering problem of young researchers in Canada, who've felt shut out of federal funding schemes—problems the report authors see as critically entwined.

Now that the recommendations have been made, the ball is in the government's court. It's up to Justin Trudeau and his team to decide how to address them.

It's no secret that there are fewer women than men in the sciences, although that's gradually changing. The Fundamental Science Review—more commonly called the Naylor report after its author, former University of Toronto president David Naylor—was commissioned to seek feedback from Canadian researchers on how to optimize the way they do their work.

Among its recommendations are policies that would incorporate gender equity quotas, alongside ways to encourage more of the 1.5 million Canadians with Indigenous roots into academia. The federal science review calls for a $1.3 billion boost for science funding. 

As for its focus on diversity specifically, "there's certainly a lot of good will about an increase of diversity in the community," Anne Wilson, professor at Laurier University and member of the review's advisory council, told me at the announcement. "So, it's not like we're pushing against a brick wall of people who really don't want to see that happen. A lot of the ways in which it hasn't occurred yet are kind of unintentional."

As an example, both the Canadian Research Chairs (or CRCs) and the Canadian Excellence Research Chairs (CERCs), programs that attract top talent to Canada through research funding, have "inexplicable discrepancies," according to the report. As of right now, 26 of the active 27 CERCs are men and 30 percent of CRCs are women, up from 14 percent in its early years.

The plight of young researchers in Canada, who felt shut out of research funding bodies in favour of their more established peers, has been under the microscope lately too, and the report treats these issues as connected. "Gender gaps are a particular concern, as is the plight of early career researchers (ECRs)," the Naylor report reads. "Given demographic trends, enhancing the opportunities for ECRs will also improve the prospects for women and other underrepresented groups, including racialized groups."

Read More: No Country for Young Scientists

The authors think that a change in how gender and diversity is handled in the academic community would result in more early career researchers (who are often young and unestablished, making their positions more precarious) sticking it out in their chosen fields. The report also acknowledges the need for balance between older generations of scientists and newer cohorts, because there's no longer a mandatory age of retirement.

The report's main recommendation was the creation of a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation. It would serve as a federal review of all science-related efforts in Canada. With a more centralized approach, deliberate actions could be taken to reduce the imbalance of genders and under-represented members of society, including Indigenous people.

Kathleen Walsh, interim executive director of the nonprofit Evidence For Democracy, is encouraged by the fact that diversity has been prioritized. "I don't believe we've seen a call for hard equity targets and quotas before," Walsh told me over the phone. "And certainly, it's timely as this government seems to be very committed to gender equality."

The NDP's science critic, Burnaby South MP Kennedy Stewart, questioned whether Trudeau had "the guts" to follow through on the report's recommendations for gender quotas.

All these discussed points are still suggestions, it's important to remember. There was no sign of the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, at the announcement event, and beyond a release expressing excitement at the long-awaited publication of the Naylor report, no commitments were made by the government to turn any of this into actual policy.

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