Women scientists experience gaps in pay and appointments

When the federal government appointed 19 men and zero women as Canada Excellence Research Chairs last month, it sparked a debate over gender equality in the sciences, and now the more information that comes out, the more it seems like women are getting the short end of the stick.

This week, a study by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York showed that women scientists Canada, the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, India, and Japan are paid significantly less than men.

In Canada male scientists average an annual income of $80,000 compared to $65,000 for women. Of course, one of the arguments made by those who don’t see a problem with this is that women may be choosing to take time off for maternity and childcare, and therefore are slowing down their careers. But Kathleen Christensen, Director of the Workplace, Workforce, and Working Families at the Sloan Foundation said that’s only part of the issue: “But I don't think it's only that ... I think it's an aggregate effect over time of accumulated discrepancies in resources and micro-inequities,” she told the PEI Guardian.

The study showed that women scientists might get directed towards what Christensen calls “office wives’ work” like organizing students rather than actual research and experiments. She also found female scientists were less likely to have mentors, to get to manage their own labs, and to be nominated for or win awards.


That might go part of the way to explaining what happened with the Research Chair appointments, each of which is worth up to $10 million in federal money. In this particular situation, the government did express some concern but noted that there was not a single woman on the shortlist of 36 researchers who were considered. Looking into why this happened, a government report found some institutions were using informal networking to select nominees for the program. That's a really nice way of saying it was partly the fault of the boy's club: the original affirmative action network. 

What’s sad is that neither the government nor our post-secondary institutions have really put much effort into rectifying the problems that exist for women scientists or even women academics more generally. In 2007 women made up only 30% of tenured positions but 45% of non-tenured positions on Canadian campuses.

In 2003 the government faced a successful gender discrimination case relating to the previous Canada Research Chair program, so they knew these problems existed. It might be an international problem but there are local and national solutions.

The report commissioned by Industry Minister Tony Clement suggested the program introduce a “rising stars” category in addition to looking for “top talent” to search for scientists at a different stage in their career. They also recommend an “open” category be added because previous searches have been directed at disciplines dominated by men. The report also recommended increasing the time for the search period. We’ve heard that it takes women longer to decide if they’ll seek public office, so it makes sense a longer research chair nominee search would give a better chance for women scientists to weigh options around moving and family.

Other steps might take longer, including fighting the societal perceptions of women as less scientifically-minded than men. But there are programs in place already starting to make a difference. For example, Operation Minerva, a program run by the Alberta Women's Science Network, offers young Aboriginal girls education and support to encourage them to pursue careers in science.

At issue isn't a lack of ideas; all we're lacking is the will on the part of the government and educational institutions.

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