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Ontario university research positions restricted to those who are women, transgender, non-binary or two spirit


‘Somehow, we’ve embraced this false notion that discrimination can be good and it simply cannot’

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The University of Waterloo has restricted hiring for at least three top-tier research positions to certain demographic groups, in two instances excluding applications from all cisgender men — whether they are white or people of colour — and in another refusing applications from anyone who doesn’t identify as Indigenous.

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The restrictions are aimed at addressing a lack of diversity among Canada Research Chairs — 2,285 prestigious positions funded by the federal government and based at postsecondary institutions across the country.

But some argue excluding people from the hiring process is not the best way to eliminate discrimination.

A recent Canada Research Chair posting at the University of Waterloo for climate change, water or future cities research in the faculty of environment is restricted to those who self-identify as women, transgender, non-binary or two spirit. A job notice in the faculty of engineering has the same requirement. A second engineering position is open only to “First Nations, Métis, Inuit/Inuk and those from other Indigenous communities across Turtle Island.”

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“Improving the representation, participation and engagement of equity–deserving groups within our community is a key objective of Waterloo’s Strategic Plan 2020-2025,” says the job posting in the environment faculty.

It’s suggesting that they could not make it on their own merit

Marie-Lynne Boudreau, director of performance, equity and diversity for the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat, which administers the Canada Research Chair program, said only a small number of positions are advertised with such exclusive criteria, as a way “to help institutions meet their targets to ensure that we have representation.”

“Men are not being barred from participating in the program,” Boudreau said.

David Millard Haskell, a professor in the faculty of liberal arts at Laurier University, said Canadian universities excluded Jewish intellectuals until the 1930s. That’s no longer the case, he said, but it’s an illustrative example of what happens when some people are excluded.

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“Had we continued our discrimination against Jewish professors … there would have been a significant deficit in the advancement of knowledge,” he said. “Thankfully, we moved in the right direction against discrimination. But now, somehow, we’ve embraced this false notion that discrimination can be good and it simply cannot.”

The Canada Research Chairs program, started in 2000, spends around $311 million per year “to attract and retain a diverse cadre of world-class researchers, to reinforce academic research and training excellence,” according to the program description.

To address a lack of diversity among Canada Research Chairs, the program set targets to increase the representation of certain groups. By December 2029, women and gender minorities must make up 50.9 per cent of all Canada Research Chairs across the entire program. Twenty-two per cent must be visible minorities; 7.5 per cent must be people with disabilities and 4.9 per cent must be Indigenous. These statistics correspond roughly to population statistics.

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“The targets are in place to address a historic and persistent underrepresentation in the program of individuals from the four designated groups as identified in the employment equity act: women, racialized minorities, Indigenous Peoples, and persons with disabilities,” says a statement from the program. “This underrepresentation exists since the program was first launched in the year 2000 and reflects the broader systemic barriers (e.g., bias) in the research ecosystem which impacts the career progression of these individuals.”

Eddy Ng, the Smith Professor of Equity & Inclusion in Business at Queen’s University, said “on the surface, to the Canadian general public (this does) seem very discriminatory in the sense that it’s reverse discrimination, right?”

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But, he said, that’s not the case. If these jobs were open to everyone, he said, the hiring committee would be flooded with applications, and that’s where bias could come in, with hiring managers potentially gravitating toward an applicant who went to the same school as them, for example.

“When they have an open call, other subjective factors, sort of overwhelm and hijack the actual qualifications needed,” Ng said. “To me, what Canada’s doing is to actually make it fair. People who have access to influence and resources and know how to make the system work for them — that is not meritocracy.”

As of October 2021, 40.9 per cent of positions across the CRC program were filled by women and gender minorities, 22.8 per cent by visible minorities, 5.8 per cent by persons with disabilities and 3.4 per cent by Indigenous people, according to the latest information on the program website.

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A majority (54.2 per cent) of Canada Research Chairs are men, and the gender ratios persist within the other designated categories. Of the persons with disabilities, 50.4 per cent are men and 60.5 per cent of visible minorities in the program are men. When it comes to Indigenous Canada Research Chairs, though, there are considerably more women than men: 70.6 per cent versus 26.5 per cent.

There are three deadlines for universities to meet the program’s diversity targets — December 2022, December 2025 and December 2027 — which were set in the wake of human rights complaints that argued white men were overrepresented in the program to the detriment of people who belong to protected groups.

“It’s a bit complex, but basically, the way we implemented (it) is recognizing that we can’t go from 31 per cent in the program to 50.9 per cent overnight,” said Boudreau.

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While the program as a whole has diversity targets, each institution sets its own diversity targets that account for factors such as population.

If individual institutions don’t meet the diversity requirements by the deadlines, they’re obliged to only hire from the four designated groups until that gap is closed.

This is an incredibly racist policy, to say that someone who was a person of colour could not compete on their own competency

Individual institutions are also free to restrict hiring to specific groups in order to meet their diversity targets or even exceed them.

Erica Ifill, the founder of Not In My Colour, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy, described the system as “better than nothing,” but argued it does little to change the structures that would make such a system necessary.

“What are they doing to maybe fix the pipeline that they have to actually find these people in the future so that they won’t have to put quotas in?” Ifill said. “What are we doing in systems and structures that create the problem in the first place? Because if not, we’re just going to put a BandAid on a gushing wound.”

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The principle of workplace diversity is broadly supported by the Canadian public.

Research from the University of Saskatchewan shows that 82.4 per cent of respondents believe diversity is “fairly” or “very” important in the workplace. Paradoxically, the researchers note, despite this widespread belief, 59.8 per cent of respondents believe demographics shouldn’t factor into hiring decisions, focusing on perceived merit, even at the risk of reducing workplace diversity and nearly 70 per cent of respondents believe they lost out on career opportunities because of the focus on diversity. (Women are more likely to favour more diverse workplaces and put more emphasis on diverse hiring than men, the study notes.)

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Haskell said he believes by denying certain demographics the chance to apply for a job, you can miss out on more qualified candidates.

“In general when immutable characteristics become the bar by which someone is offered a job, well, of course, you’re going to have people who are not as qualified,” Haskell said. “And, the thing that concerns me is … it’s suggesting that they could not make it on their own merit. This is the height of racism. This is an incredibly racist policy, to say that someone who was a person of colour could not compete on their own competency and merit.”

Nothing would have changed in the job ad other than the group of applicants sought — the qualifications for a position would still be the same, and universities are not required to hire less-qualified candidates to hit diversity targets, said Ng.

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Ifill said there’s no reason why hiring for diversity would result in less competent candidates.

“Why are competence and race, diversity mutually exclusive? Because that’s the assumption that you would have to make to actually buy that argument,” she said.

While critics often point out that there could be excellent research missed because of restrictive hiring criteria, its defenders point to the “historic and very persistent” under-representation in academia that can also result in missed research opportunities.

“And so when we talk about missing out, I think it’s important to look back as well, to see what we missed out on in terms of individuals who weren’t being given access to the program prior to equity measures being put in place,” Boudreau said. “The equity targets allow individuals who are excellent researchers, who normally would not be given access, are now being given access.”

The University of Waterloo did not respond by press time to a list of questions sent by the National Post.

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