canada · equity · turgid institution

What do women want?

The other evening I was invited to the home of a retired colleague to talk about equity. The idea was to discuss some of the unsettling trends in the Stephen Harper administration and in our own university and come up with a plan for revitalizing feminist struggles.

We failed. Oh, we had plenty to say about Ottawa, and our universities, and our funding structures, and even our colleagues, but when it came right down to the gnarly question of what we mean by equity – well, when it came down to that, we failed. We could not say what we want.

These last few days, I have been pondering why. I will speak for myself, but perhaps what I say here will resonate with you too.

Partly, I find it hard to say what I want in the name of equity because I want so very many things for the profession. Some of them are directly connected to equity, some are loosely associated, and some are entirely distinct. Among the things I want: cheaper tuition; smaller class sizes; a clear job description; the return of my colleagues’ telephones; a reinvention of the conference format; more generous and less aggravating support for research; a broader understanding of university-community relationships; recognition of graduate supervision as part of our workload; academic jobs for grad students who want them; time to think; and a Jil Sander suit.

It’s also hard to say what I want because I have been trained in a metacritical / hypercritical tradition that means as soon as something is out of my mouth I can see its pitiable inadequacies. Nothing is ever good enough, and when ‘smart’ is measured by idealist perfection or theoretical rigor rather than the pragmatic dirty compromise of actually existing postlapsarianism – well, then, it’s tough to get the ideas out.

But even though it’s hard, and risky, and guaranteed to be inadequate, I’m going to take a crack at saying what I’d like in the name of equity.

First, I support the Employment Equity Act that governs private sector employers, crown corporations, federal contractors and the public service in Canada. There are other ways to arrive at equality, and the federal contractors’ legislation may not be perfect, but since C21 conservativism’s modus operandi, here and elsewhere, often takes the form of dismantling legislation and institutions, I would like to see us stand behind the State on this one.

I would like the professoriate to resemble the demographics of the country in all four protected categories: gender, visible minorities, Aboriginality, and disability. I thought of keying the demographics to our city or our province but both seem volatile enough that I prefer what I take to be the stabilizing influence of the nation as an analytical category. If 4% of Canada is Aboriginal (wikipedia), then 4% of our university should be Aboriginal. Yup, that’s right: I’m proposing quotas. I’ve never been persuaded by the arguments against American-style affirmative action. (Q: What’s worse than getting a job because you’re black? A: Not getting one.)

One important equity goal would be to see these numbers reflected across the ranks, from undergraduate student to full professor. So maybe until we get it right – about 58% of undergraduates are women but only 18-38% of full professors are women, depending on your discipline, so we have a ways to go – maybe we should build in a buffer: plus two or three percentage points per category, for instance. Anyone out there numerate enough to run the figures?

There has to be a time limit with hard targets along the way. Given how long it takes for an undergraduate to become a full professor, I figure we won’t really arrive until 2025 or so: we need to train the best and brightest, and the system requires flexibility. Equity is a long road. Still, every five years, Canada should be about 30% along. If we’re not, we take pan-institutional corrective measures. If by 2025 our equity results are as dismal as they are right now, we strike.

So here, in a nutshell, is my equity demand: I want the professoriate to match Canadian demographics by 2025.

There are other things I would like. I would like equity categories to be more broadly understood, as well, so that gender is not just men and women, and “visible difference” (visible to whom?) can differentiate between moneyed immigrants and structurally disadvantaged communities. I wish we had a good way to incorporate social class into these categories. (Interestingly, queer representation doesn’t particularly trouble me, though I may be naive about that.) I suspect disability will remain the most difficult for us to wrap our minds around, even though many more academics than you might imagine struggle with invisible disabilities like chronic mental illnesses. On the other hand, how many deaf professors do you know?

So, yes, I would like subtler categories – but I am afraid that at this point I lose the clarity of a simple ask, and so I am willing to work with the categories we have for the time being. I’m pretty flat-footed that way.

Am I prepared to adapt to the changed structures and practices and tenets of our academy in order to help bring about more equitable demographics? I think so. But we would be foolish to think we could foresee all of the changes equity would entail – or to imagine we would necessarily like them. Many English departments are shockingly white, for instance, perhaps even aggressively white, and I’m not sure we would recognize “literature” if we hired more than token minorities. Similarly, it’s easy to say that having more women would strengthen arguments for recognizing and rewarding what I’ve been calling in this blog “emotional labour” – but maybe that’s a middle-class desideratum that would not survive equitable demographics. Do we really want mentoring written into our job descriptions? Maybe…. All I’m saying here is that if we go down the road of changing our institutions, we can’t presume we’ll like each and every alteration.

But I’m certainly willing to find out.

Enough from me. What do you think our institutional equity goals should be?

4 thoughts on “What do women want?

  1. Heather, thank you. What a provoking, thoughtful, engaged piece of writing.

    Here's what I want (& many of these are similar to your list, but rather than say 'yes,' I'll name them here):
    I want our university professoriate AND student population to mirror Canadian demographics, and I want communities, universities, and the government to be working together to ensure that this happens in an equitable fashion for everyone.

    I want more institutional support for mothers working in the university system in all areas. I'm SO glad Aimee has had a good childcare experience on campus, this is not the case for so many women I know. Moreover, I want the institution to think about how it ghettoizes parenting.

    I want professionalization for undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students that gives them a wide variety of options and empowers them to make their own career choices.

    I want a system that recognizes what it asks of its workers, which really means I want administrators at all levels to recognize what they ask of their workers. And I want those administrators and workers to think about how to usefully and humanely restructure the system so that 'scheduling time for meltdowns' isn't part of the 'normal' training for administrators and workers.

    I want mentoring to be written in to my job description, but I want to be paid for it. I want the mentorship work that I do to count as much as a peer reviewed article.

    And the list could go on…

    What else, y'all?


  2. I also want the Canadian professoriate to mirror the demographics of Canadian society, but it's not clear from your post if you include national origin in those demographics. The vast majority of Canadian citizens were born and raised in Canada (whether 1st generation or 10th; I make no distinction as long as they grew up with Canadian culture). Yet the last reliable ACCUTE hiring survey in English shows that over 50% of the jobs now go to foreigners (mostly US and UK citizens with PhDs from those countries). Look at the faculty profiles on the departmental website of any research school in the country and it's easy to see that an entire generation of Assistant Professors hired since HRDC got rid of the two-tier system in 1999 are not Canadians. The earliest members of that cohort are now Associates and exerting influence on graduate student training and current hiring committees, entrenching foreign views and standards of the profession in the Canadian system. At this rate, soon there won't be any Canadians left in the Canadian university system. Does this issue figure into your account of the demographics of Canadian higher education, and what do you propose can be done to correct the growing imbalance?


  3. As a student, I want to see more equity among departments. Fine arts and Arts in general are just as important as business and engineering. News flash, no body is getting jobs out of university in a recession, not just the artists. Last time I checked too, the faculties that are getting more funded are more populated by *gasp* men!
    There are other things i'd like to see, but I generally just agree with the above changes already put forth.

    The only thing I might add…students might appreciate more flex time as well. Which is silly to say I know. But, the amount of pressure on us is so great, that if we miss even a single class, we are likely missing a substantial amount of subject matter…and therefore university really isn't a viable option for a single mother who has a sick kid, or someone who doesn't have the financial means to just go to school without having a full time job on the side. (student loans are fail in a whole bunch of ways)
    Anyways, all i mean is maybe it might be okay to start university maybe a few weeks earlier, and end it a few weeks later. Then if you miss a day of class, your not missing an eighth of the curriculum. But that could just be a dumb idea.


  4. When I talk about equity and feminism with friends who work outside of the university I keep hearing “but that doesn’t work in the real world.” I’d like people at the university to take some more active steps to make sure these ideas, and any equity gains made here, do translate into the real world, because we are really a tiny and privileged group, and most people who encounter the university system (undergraduate students) just pass through here – they can’t stay in this comparatively healthy and safe bubble forever.

    I’m glad I work at a university – I experience much less discrimination “in here” than “out there,” but I don’t want to feel restricted to working in a university. I wish that as a student I had had more training and felt more empowered to make sure that I could fight harder, more confidently, and more successfully against structural inequities in the workplace and society.

    One reason I think people have a hard time with this is that they don’t leave university properly able to articulate what they need, or properly informed of what their rights are, what equity means, and how a lack of equity harms them – that could be improved pretty quickly. Student debt also means that many graduates take any job that they can get which just adds to their vulnerability as workers.


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