academic work · contract work · disability · equity · job market

Guest post – Have they thought about what they’re asking?: the inequity of job applications

By Alana Cattapan
Dalhousie University

The highly saturated, incredibly challenging world of the academic job market is made easier, just a little bit, by the standardization of the documents requested by search committees. For the most part there are a few documents—the cover letter, the CV, the teaching dossier, the research statement, the writing sample (and increasingly, the diversity statement)—which are then tailored according to the job ad. It is not that this is a simple task. Writing each document in the first place is challenging and job applications are a genre of writing all their own. But once they are written, it is largely a matter of refining the documents for each application.

Some hiring departments, however, are going in the direction of less standardization, not more. I saw a job ad today that asked for two sample syllabi—not merely syllabi for courses previously taught—but rather syllabi for specific courses in the hiring department, and I was outraged. Asking applicants to write full syllabi for courses not only requires an incredible amount of time for applicants who don’t make the cut. It also perpetuates a cycle of privilege in which only candidates with enough time to carefully put together syllabi (again, above and beyond the norms of regular job applications) are considered for the position. (And this is not even considering cases where there have been accusations on the part of job applicants that their sample syllabi have been used, without permission or pay, to develop actual course content.)

Let’s consider the labour. I’m not sure how much time other people spend on a syllabus, but I spend at least a week. I think carefully about the pedagogical goals for the class, and how they might be achieved through an examination of certain concepts and themes. I think about how each selection of course material intersects with others. I reread texts for ideas about connections that might emerge when we read them in a specific order. I think about how the flow of the class might be interrupted by holidays, and how to time assignments so that students will have adequate feedback to improve. In short, there are many considerations and it takes a while to put a good syllabus together. If fifty applicants each put together one syllabus (and the train from Chicago was going sixty-five miles per hour), then for one specific syllabus request, the hiring committee will have wasted nearly a year of unpaid academic labour.

And beyond the work involved, I think about who it is that has the capacity to fulfil these kinds of requests. If contingent faculty members are applying for this job (a group that includes a disproportionate number of women and people of colour), they will write these syllabi after long days of driving between campuses. They will do so while sacrificing time that they could spend publishing their research, painstakingly crafting a syllabus they may not ever get the chance to teach. Disabled applicants, parents, and those tasked with eldercare are also placed at a disadvantage, for they might have sufficient resources to tailor a job application but not enough to develop two new syllabi. Or they might sacrifice self care, or everyday tasks, to get the application in. And sacrifice they will, because applicants have come to think that if we are to obtain the elusive tenure-track position, it will all be worth it in the end. If we don’t make the time in our lives to write the syllabi, another rare opportunity for a job will pass us by.

These requests are now not just part of tenure-track job ads, but applications for visiting assistant professorships, postdoctoral fellowships, and (gasp) sessional positions. When search committees ask for more documents—for more time-consuming, carefully constructed, well-proofread expressions of one’s commitment to the academy—they are asking for more unpaid, unseen academic labour that yet again falls more heavily on those already bearing the burden of disability, responsibility, and precarity.


Alana Cattapan is a CIHR postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University and an incoming Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. Her research examines women’s participation in policy making, identifying links between the state, the commercialization of the body, biotechnologies, and reproductive labour.















Image: unsplash

#heforshe · administration · equity · ideas for change · modest proposal · role models

What can I ask for? A modest proposal

Academic women are often confounded when presented with the opportunity, obligation, or occasion to ask someone for something: money, teaching release, academic accommodation, etc. This confounding almost invariably results in women structurally under-asking and under-receiving, relative to male peers. And I know how to fix it.

What am I talking about?

Let’s say you are applying for a grant that requires matching funds. (Matching funds: some combination of you, your institution, partners or sponsor kicks in some money, and the granting agency matches it.) Let’s say you are asking your research office or some other funds-holding body on campus for these funds. My dearest spouse has been the receiver of such requests, for a variety of programs, for the last ten years, from hundreds of researchers. Here are the two far ends of the spectrum of requests, composites and only slightly exaggerated.

Professor A: “I need the research office to give me $50,000 in matching funds for this big important grant because I am big and important and if I get this grant the university will look bigger and more important.”

My spouse: “Well, no. We don’t even have $50,000 in that entire fund, and we must serve multiple researcher requests.”

Professor A, ten seconds later: “How much is in the fund?”

My spouse: “$10,000.”

Professor A, five seconds later: “That’s not very much! I need that $10,000 and who can I write to to ask for more? Is it the VP Research? What’s his email address?”

Professor B: “I’m so sorry, but I think I have to ask you for some matching funds for my grant? It’s a funder requirement. Otherwise I wouldn’t ask.”

My spouse: “Of course! How much do you want?”

Professor B, after delay of three days: “I don’t know, is maybe $1000 too much?”

My spouse: “Don’t you need more than that? How much do you need?”

Professor B, after a further delay of three days: “I don’t want to be a bother! I’m so sorry I’m doing this wrong! What can I ask for? Maybe I shouldn’t submit this grant, I obviously don’t know what I’m doing.”

—-

Guess who gets the most money here? These are composite cases, but the gist of it is incredibly common. Professor A asks for the moon, and when shut down proceeds in a completely unembarrassed way to find out what the maximum is, and then to ask for that. Professor B is cringingly embarrassed to have to ask for anything, tries to ask for the absolute minimum, and upon receiving a followup suggesting the ask be altered, assumes they themselves are incompetent and withdraws from competition.

I leave you to guess the gender distribution into A and B categories.

I leave you to guess who wins the most grants, get the most matching funds, gets better funding, thus puts themselves in line for accolades and further prestige. Guess.

Me, there are a bunch of opportunities I don’t pursue because I would have to ask for resources. My first year as grad chair, I missed out on some recruitment funds because I wasn’t sure if I was entitled to ask, if my asks were reasonable, who I was being compared against, what the priorities were, and how much money I could ask for and for what. There was a “cookie jar” of unallocated funds. All the grad chairs could ask for funds from it, as needed. Well, shit, I don’t perform well under those conditions. No rules, no criteria, no guidelines on what and how much and how often and when. I’m getting nervous just thinking about it. I also hate it when people ask me my fee for talks: shit, I don’t know. How much are you paying the other speakers? What’s your budget? What would be reasonable? Just the other week I was on the verge of a clinical breakdown and my plan was to complain on the internet instead of asking for help that would cost someone money–like a good girl I waited for it to be offered to me. I know people, by contrast, who legit fight to get their teaching all arranged on ONE day of the week so they never have to be on campus.

People who aggressively ask, get more stuff. Aptitude for such aggression is often gendered. Institutional acceptance of aggression is often also gendered: you know, “God, she’s so pushy and demanding, who does she think she is?” versus “He really has no tact, but what a genius!”

A modest proposal 

In the spirit of He for She, I’m going to ask the mostly dudes who are in charge around here to do something pretty simple to make the soft-money and informal-arrangements a little fairer to the shy people as well as the bold. The team players as well as the out-for-themselfers.

Lay. Out. Some. Fucking. Parameters. Make them clear, specific, visible, and enforced.

For matching funds, why not have a page describing the process, something like this:

For X Award, researchers must secure matching funds from private and public sector partners, and from their institutions. Normally, the Office of Research can offer between $2500 and $7500 in matching funds in support of applications to this program. We are happy to work with you to determine your needs and to help you fulfill them. In some cases, extra funds may be deemed necessary, and such requests will be considered by the Important People Committee. 

Me, if I knew the parameters of the possible, I would feel WAY more comfortable making an ask. If I knew that the whole thing is negotiable and contingent, I would feel WAY more comfortable with a fuzzy rather than perfect ask.

I think the Powers that Be also need to note that many women are going to be more Professor B than Professor A. And even with clear parameters, are probably going to ask for less. I know it is tempting to let the shy and accommodating people just take less money, so you can get the aggressive and self-aggrandizing Professor B some more money so that he will leave you alone. But maybe that’s not, actually, fair. Maybe that’s not, actually, about whose proposal or whose research is actually better or more worthy, but about who is the squeaky wheel, and who is not. It’s resource allocation based on noise, not quality, frankly.

We can figure out new ways to be transparent about teaching allocation, and informal accommodations, and all the other “soft” requests that we always resist formalizing because of a desire to maintain “wiggle room.” I suggest to you, though, that some people are wiggling a lot harder than others, and tend to jostle the rest of us right off the bench and onto the floor. Wiggle room is often an excuse for the arbitrary distribution of resources, even if we like to frame it as room for empathetic discretion.

A modest suggestion

Many Hook and Eye readers, I am sure, identify way more with Professor B than Professor A. And that’s fine. So do I. But it’s worth learning a little bit about how the other side lives. I have learned, for example, that it’s not necessary to be embarrassed by asking for too much or not enough. Someone will tell you “no,” but it’s not “NO BECAUSE YOU ARE A FLAMING IDIOT OMIGOD I CAN’T BELIEVE WE HIRED YOU.” It’s more, “no, can’t do it — reframe the request and I’ll consider it again.” Or sometimes it’s just, “no, sorry, ran out of money, oh well.” Seriously. I just learned that, like, this year.

It’s admirable to want to be a good team player. But not to the point of total effacement of your own needs and desires. I deal with enough Professor A types to never want to be that person. But I have been Professor B enough times to know that I’m never going to reach my potential that way either.

So if you are a B type, see if you can push yourself a tiny little bit out of your comfort zone. Maybe you have book deadline in a teaching term — maybe ask if you can do some repeat courses instead of new preps in that one term. Maybe you have taken on a big admin role — maybe you can ask to have your courses compressed into fewer days to buy yourself some breathing space. Maybe your one course consistently overenrolls way higher than other similar courses — maybe you can ask for TA or grader support. Just ask; maybe it will be no, and that’s ok. But maybe it will be yes.

#alt-ac · administration · banting · change · equity · research · scholarships

The Challenge of Challenging Unconscious Bias

I talk more about the professional and career development parts of my job here than I do the research funding part, mostly because the PD and careers stuff seems like it would be more useful to more readers. It also tends to be more political, and that’s what we often like to focus on. But research funding administration takes up a good chunk of my time at work, although less now than it used to, and it’s just as political as the state of the academic job market. Because I’m running fewer funding competitions now that I’m at a smaller institution, I’ve got more time to think about the issues with the way that research funding gets applied for and distributed, and to focus on improving our processes and documentation, both for the people applying for awards (graduate students and postdocs) and for the people supporting applicants (their current and former professors and supervisors).

A big chunk of the time I spend in every funding competition is reviewing applications–to make sure people are applying to the right Tri-Council agency, for completeness, to help the students and postdocs I work with to develop their applications and make them more competitive. In consequence, I read a lot of reference letters in a year–easily a couple of thousand. Given how necessary and ubiquitous reference letters are in academia–for funding and admission applications, for tenure and promotion, for job applications–I had never read any, at least of the ones written about me, before I started working in admin. That’s pretty normal, I should think, given that letters of reference are supposed to be confidential. It’s been enlightening to get to read not just a few, but a glut of them. Mostly, though, in terms of how bad some of them were. And not just bad, but so, so biased.

If you were to walk past my office during an intensive application review session, you’d hear a lot of groans and the occasional derisive shout. And those mostly come when I’m reading the letters written for women. If women scholarship, fellowship, and job applicants knew how biased their letters were, they’d be horrified. So too would the letter writers be, given that these letters are largely the result of unconscious bias. And it’s not that the referees are reluctantly writing so-so letters for so-so applicants. These are great applicants with mostly good letters that are completely undercut by unconscious bias–by noting that X manages to be an excellent researcher despite having three kids at home; that Y is nice, polite, and compassionate; that Z is very nurturing toward her supervisees. Want to know how referees tend to talk about these qualities in a man? A is an exceptional and innovative researcher. B’s collegiality allows him to set up and effectively manage productive research collaborations. C is an exceptional mentor whose support has allowed xx students to take up graduate positions at research-intensive universities. Men get more glowing adjectives too–superb versus good, outstanding versus competent–and are less likely to have their accomplishments undercut by hedging or faint praise.

Since I mostly work with grad students and postdocs, I see how unconscious bias works early in the pipeline to keep women from securing the research funding–or admission to a top-notch graduate program–they need to get their research careers off on the right foot. But the problem if anything gets worse as women progress through their careers. We all remember what happened with the CERC program (one of the impetuses behind the start of Hook & Eye)–not a single woman was awarded one in the first round of distributing these super Canada Research Chairs, and as of right now, only two of the twenty-four chairs are held by women. The CERC equity practices are mostly a joke, but the Canada Research Chairs program is doing a little better. They’ve gone so far as to add a big section to their “Letters of Reference” instructions to address the issue of unconscious bias, and to direct letter writers on how to avoid it.

I’ve adapted their language for application instructions attached to the scholarship and fellowship competitions I run, but I know very well that doing so is not nearly enough (not the least because it is very difficult to get faculty to read more than they absolutely have to, never mind act on it). I see unconscious bias at work every day, but how do I, as a research administrator, do something about it? How do I help my students and postdocs get themselves good letters, knowing that they’ll never get to see the letters and judge for themselves? How do I teach their referees how to overcome unconscious bias when they’re writing? How do I tell senior faculty and scientists that they’re exhibiting unconscious bias without pissing them off or making them feel defensive? Figuring out how to tackle these problems–to do what little I can to challenge systemic sexism with what little power I have–is so necessary and so hard. I do what I can–I call my students and postdocs attention to it, I put directions on how to avoid explicit bias in writing for referees and ask them to read it, I advocate to the Tri-Council funding agencies that they put anti-bias practices and guidelines in place (although the ones that already exist are mostly useless), I call the attention of the adjudication committees I work with to instances of unconscious bias when they’re assessing applications. It’s something, but the problem is enormous, especially considering that the unconscious bias that shows up in reference letters is the same unconscious bias that has infected the CERC program, is the same unconscious bias that skews teaching evaluations.

But I want to, and need to, do more. Because we all know that there are exceptional women who should have gotten that scholarship, should have gotten into that graduate program, should have gotten that job, should have gotten tenure, should have gotten that chairship, but didn’t because her smarts, capability, and excellence were undercut by unconscious bias. Any thoughts, dear readers, on what else I (and we) can do in the work we do every day?

bad academics · equity · one · righteous feminist anger

A little spring "sunshine list"

If you live in Ontario, you know that the so-called “Sunshine List” is out. An innovation from the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government in 1996, the list, featuring all public sector workers who earn total public compensation of more than $100,000, was introduced to “make Ontario’s public sector more open and accountable to taxpayers.” Alberta introduced its own sunshine list in 2014. They make for compelling and controversial reading.

The lists are generally mined publicly to two purposes. First, to decry the sheer number of public sector employees who join the list each year, a means to note that ever more sun seems to shine in civil service while others suffer. Some of this is exaggerated: if the sunshine threshold of $100,000 had been pegged to inflation, for example, the cutoff salary for disclosure would have rise to $142,338. Here, the tool is incredibly politically useful to to pit workers against one another, particularly as the real purchasing power of the threshold salary decreases: the list gets “too big” and despite inflation many (underpaid) workers find it unfair that so many others are tagged as earning a salary high enough to be publicly disclosed. The general move of this is not to argue that private sector workers ought to be better compensated, but that unionized public employees ought to be brought down. So every year the number stays the same, and every year the private sector holds its wages down, the sunshine list becomes more useful as a tool to attack the public service unions. Pegging to inflation would defeat the purpose. In fact, using the inflation-adjusted cutoff of $142,338, there would be 4000 fewer workers on the sunshine list now than in 2005, for example. That would take, for example, a ton of police officers and university professors (including most of my own department, and, well, me) off the list. In fact, if the number stayed pegged to inflation, I would probably never get on it. Ever.

Unless I move into administration in a more serious way.

The second use of the list, of course, is to find the outliers: generally, this group includes C-suite executives of crown corporations–hospital heads, apparently anything to do with electricity, and, this year, Western University President Amit Chakma.

Amit Chakma was given $942,000 in salary last year. This is an outrageous number. (Even in 1996 dollars: $661,803.) I am finding it very, very hard, in this age of adjunctification, of poverty-level graduate student funding, of rising class sizes and 50 year old classrooms with 40 year old chairs, to find a way to wrap my head around a nearly $1,000,000 annual compensation package for the president of a public university.

Ok. I’m finding it impossible.

Apparently, Chakma’s salary is in a one-time doubling scenario, because he’s skipping a full sabbatical. Regardless, in a shared governance scenario where university leaders are supposed to rise up from within the ranks, it seems outrageous to then separate them so effectively by vaulting them into the 1%, a socioeconomic stratum from which they never seem to descend to re-join the ranks.

At my university, when you take a full year sabbatical (after six years), you have your salary reduced to 60% of its value for the duration. If you take an early (six month) sabbatical (after three years), you have your salary reduced to 80% of its value. Under no scenario that I know of can you double your salary by not taking an earned sabbatical. This very term, I myself am meant to be on sabbatical–but I’m not, because grad chair. I am earning a stipend for this work, to compensate for the responsibility and aggravation and the lack of sabbaticals: this stipend amounts to something south of $5000 annually, if you’d like to know. I consider this incredibly generous.

As Jason Haslam noted in an open letter to the Western Board of Governors, the compensation provided to Chakma could fund 130 classes offered by sessionals at Western’s rate of pay. He asks: is President Chakma’s work worth 130 undergraduate classrooms of students? I might add: is President Chakma’s work worth 15 junior assistant professors? Worth 9 mid-career associates? Is it worth a $10,000 top-up to the funding of 94 graduate students to bring them above poverty-level wages for teaching all those undergrads?

These are questions internal to the operations of the university sphere. We who toil (with radically different compensation packages) within it understand what’s at stake. And just how much we’re losing.

Perhaps even more damaging, though, is the blow that Chakma-gate deals to the university in the general conversation. The sunshine list in general and presidential salary in particular lead the public to believe that universities are rife with enormous salaries and privilege. It makes it very hard to understand how so many instructors can be so very poor. It makes it hard to understand why tuition and fees are so high but the teachers are bringing their own whiteboard markers to class. It’s hard to claim austerity and ask for increased government funding for education when university presidents are drawing such outrageous compensations packages.

Here we are, crying structural institutional impoverishment while trying to split hairs that #notallprofs are overpaid (or even profs, for that matter) but #yesalladministrators are taking too much, but could the same government that pays the salaries give us more for … salaries? And, as usual, it’s the students and the contingent workers–and the university project as a whole, understood as a public good–who will be the losers. So many April fools.

emotional labour · equity · faster feminism · righteous feminist anger

Anger: We Need It

There is a place for anger in feminism.

This statement seems incontrovertible. But what about this one?

There is a place for anger in academia.

It seems like this should be an incontrovertible statement, doesn’t it? But is it? What about feminist anger in academia? 

This is a blog that works to bring together, explore, and work in the intersections of feminism, gender, and academia. With that in mind, here is what has been keeping me up at night, not just this week, but certainly more so this week.



This week I have been watching three events unfold in the news: the ongoing strikes by precarious workers at York and U of Toronto; the discussions that are unfolding after conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith read Michael Brown’s autopsy as a poem at Brown University, and the jury handed down the shameful not-guilty verdict for the man who murdered Cindy Gladue.

They are not directly connected to feminism and academia, at least not at first glance, but I am trained as a literary and cultural critic. I can’t help but read these events through the theoretical lenses I’ve developed over the years. I am also a woman who (sometimes) works in academia, who lives in Canada, and who writes about women, poetry and poetics, and the Canadian nation. And each of these events make me ask: where is the collective anger?

Don’t get me wrong, there is anger out there over each of these events. Take, for example, the #ImNotNext hashtag that Indigenous women have been using to raise awareness about and gather collective momentum for a call for a national inquiry. Or the series of articles written by precarious workers on the line. Or the work of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo. Oh yes, there is righteous and active anger out there. 

What I am wondering is this: where are the places where anger crosses lines and forms coalitions between academics and people outside the academy? Between people with more and less privilege? Between people who are “seen” by institutions and those who are not seen? 

Remember when I wrote about Sara Ahmed on the necessity of anger for not just the individual, but also the feminist movement to advance? She does this iThe Cultural Politics of Emotion. Anger, for Ahmed, is vital. It is vital for the feminist movement to stave off apathy, exhaustion,and isolation. Further, she surges readers to consider the ways in which anger is a necessity for a future-oriented hope:

If anger is a form of ‘against-ness,’ then it is precisely about the impossibility of moving beyond the history of injuries to a pure or innocent position. Anger does not necessarily require an investment in revenge, which is one form of reaction to what one is against. Being against something is dependent on how one reads what one is against….The question becomes: What form of action is possible given that reading? (175)

Ahmed draws on Black feminist writing and Audre Lorde specifically to think through the ways in which anger is crucial for the necessary energy to react against injustice. Lorde writes

My fear of anger taught me nothing…. Anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification….Anger is loaded with information and energy. (Sister/Outsider 124, 127)

Anger, as Ahmed puts it, is framed here as a “response to injustice; as a vision and version of the future; as a translation of pain into knowledge; and as being loaded with information and energy” (175). Anger, she writes, is not simply a response to the past, it is an opening up into the future. It is a means of moving forward out of what is without forgetting what was. “If anger energizes feminist subjects, it also requires those subject to ‘read’ and ‘move’ from anger into a different bodily world” (175).

Too often women are told that their anger is a waste of time. Of course, this devaluation and depoliticization of women’s emotions only increases if you are a woman of colour; especially, as Blair M. Kelly writes, if you are a Black womanAhmed and Lorde are not the only writers who extol the vitality of anger for a feminist, anti-racist, social justice movement, but they are two I find myself coming back to again and again, because they articulate so clearly for me why anger is necessary and empowering. 


I want to return to them today for the specific reasons I mentioned at the start: 


The material conditions of precarious academic workers.

Questions about racist, white male privilege, art, and (in)appropriation.

Canada’s ongoing and disgusting disregard for the human rights and dignity of Indigenous women.


Bear with me, I know these reasons are not coequal. They do intersect. They are, I think, legible together when read through my main argument: we need anger right now. As feminists, we need it. As academics, we need it. As humans living in this world and caring for other humans, we need it. 

These three connected but discrete examples remind me of the importance of anger for feminists as individuals and for the feminist movement in all its iterations. 

In short, these reasons make me wonder: where is the anger in academia? Where is the anger and outrage in Canada?


I mean really, where is the anger? Where is the out-in-the-street supporting-each-other-across-disciplines-and-employment-statuses? Where is the collecting-national-demand-for-an-inquiry-into-Missing-and-Murdered-Women? Where is the broad-scale, national-level use-your-tenure-to-speak-up-risk-taking? Where is the collective action in service of the academic mission as well as the publics on behalf of whom we work. 


Let’s not forget, after all, that in Canada at least most of us are working at public institutions. What is our responsibility? How can we activated those responsibilities in collective and sustainable ways that attend to immediate issues as well as long-term structures of inequality that cross the bounds of gender, race, and class? How can we use anger to fuel our work? And can we salvage hope in the process?  

classrooms · equity · ideas for change · job market · learning · PhD · risky writing

Conquering Fear, Risking Failure

I’m writing my dissertation on a disparate group of women writers in the late-19th century who were not just writers but also speakers, thinkers, and activists, and involved in a number of different social clubs and organizations in London. As these women employed a variety of mediums to promote their particular type of feminist social change, they had to cross barriers of all kinds to make themselves heard. As platform speakers, they were scrupulous about their modest yet not-overtly-feminine appearance so as to manage their authority on the platform, yet still they endured jeering, shouting, and even physical assault when they spoke up on topics like class inequality and female suffrage. As executive members of prominent social organizations, they were refused appointments and invitations to certain committees and other clubs because of their radical opinions; as writers, most began their careers pseudonymously before daring to print polemical work under their own names.

In the last few months, as I’ve sifted through newspaper clippings, letters, and ephemera related to these women, I’ve come across numerous references to fears: descriptions of trembling and shaking before public speaking, the repeated impulse to destroy one’s work, the desperate measures taken to prevent discovery of private conversations. What has struck me above all else, however, is how they ultimately conquered their fears of public judgement and risked personal failure to promote their cause. Despite trembling like a leaf before every public speech, Isabella Ford marched up the steps to the podium and advocated for female emancipation. Instead of destroying an article she’d written on the place of women in society, Emma Brooke submitted it to the Westminster Review.

While privileged in terms of their access to newly-opened educational opportunities and because of their upper-middle-class status, these women still had to challenge existing gender hierarchies and oppressive social structures to make their voices heard, risking social exclusion to do so. Yet instead of experiencing their privilege as a silencing force, they spoke out powerfully and passionately for the benefit of equality in class, gender, and social relations: they took a stand, became involved, and overcame their fear to enact the social change they wanted to see.

Sometimes, as a PhD student with little institutional power and a precarious job market ahead, it is easy to forget the privilege I inhabit on a daily basis as a white, cis-gendered, person of normative height and weight. I’m often very conscious of my precarity, and less conscious of my privilege, concerned more with limiting risk than with conquering fear.

But I’ve been inspired by these writer-activists I’m studying, who conquered fear and risked failure so as to advocate for equity.

Last week, for the first time since my daughter was born, I brought her to work with me. It was partially necessary (she couldn’t go in to daycare and my partner was unavailable), and partially luck: my class was doing their second peer review. Not only did I not have to explain how to do the exercise, I only had to hand out the worksheets, answer a few questions, and make sure my students stuck around to participate. Bringing a 2 1/2 year old was actually possible. Of course it was still risky: bringing a toddler into such a space always has the potential to go radically wrong. And in terms of establishing or managing authority in a classroom, a toddler is not a particularly strong choice of accessory, even if you are wearing a great blazer.

But my thinking is that the university too needs to be a open and inclusive space, not just for women, but for the children we (or our partners) occasionally have to bring with us. And sometimes, in order to make those spaces open, we just have to be in them.

I decided to take my daughter to class with me despite my lack of privilege, and because of my privilege. I decided to forgo my authority for a day and instead attempted to challenge how my students conceive of university space. I’m not sure I was successful, but I hope the risk was worth it. Perhaps, like the women of whom I write, I too can enact the change I want to see.

canada · equity · inconvenience

On Inconvenience

I was in Kingston for the day yesterday, giving a talk to grad students, staff, and faculty about how grad students can be strategic in the choices they make during grad school to optimize their flexibility post-degree. More on that later, since the gender issue became present in ways I hadn’t expected. But ever before I got to Kingston at all, I got held up at Union Station in Toronto, where I was supposed to be catching a train. On arriving at the station, late and a bit flustered, I was dismayed to find that no trains were running, and we were being put on buses instead. Ugh. Why the buses, it took awhile to find out. In the meantime, I stood I line, the time getting later and later, no sense of when we might leave, worried about missing my talk and the meetings I had scheduled before, and listening to people in line huffing and sighing and swearing. And then we found out that the tracks had been blockaded by First Nations people* near Nappanee who were protesting the refusal of the federal government to stage a full inquiry into the disappearance of Aboriginal women.

I emailed the folks expecting me that I might not make it, and calmed right down. Injustice trumps inconvenience any day.

But still. Via had known about the blockade quite awhile, and yet we had been waiting for a bus for most of the morning. Employees were defensive when people inquired about a timeline for departure. Many of my fellow passengers were, despite knowing about the reason for the blockade, still extremely annoyed. And when we went to finally board the bus–just in time for me to make it to Queen’s for my talk–reporters were on hand to ask us how we felt about the delay. They didn’t mention the blockade, or the reason for it, at all. Instead, they wanted to focus on the irritation and inconvenience to a bunch of largely privileged, largely white, people. My annoyance, indeed my anger, grew again.

And then we got into the Don Valley Parkway and learned that the buses had been delayed because someone had jumped off the Bloor Viaduct, despite the city’s efforts to make it physically impossible, efforts not accompanied by an increase in accessible and affordable mental health services. By this point, I was annoyed at myself for being annoyed. Injustice trumps inconvenience any day.

I made it to Queen’s just fine. The talk was great, and my meetings were rescheduled for after instead of before. I had the privilege of being paid to talk to people about a topic I care passionately about, of having bosses that allow me to do these kinds of trips, of having the kind of institutional and personal authority that means people invite me to talk, and listen when I do. I didn’t have to worry about affording the trip, or being discriminated against while I was on it, or mysteriously not coming home and having the government not care where I’d gone.  All I had to do was sit on a bus when I would have preferred to be on a train, to stand in line for longer than I might have liked. And to think about the reasons for the blockade, the very good reasons, and the extremes to which First Nations people feel the need to go to get the attention of the rest of Canada about something that is so very, so deeply, so terribly wrong. They’ve recognized that inconvenience can be a route to awareness and to justice, if people can look beyond their own privilege, and that the inconvenience of having to stage an inquiry is an injustice that the government has no chance of justifying. I just hope that their efforts have some effect, that injustice starts to trumps inconvenience in the minds of Canadians, and in our government, one day. Any day. And that I can figure out what I can best do to help.

*This isn’t the best link, but it’s nearly impossible to find a news source that emphasizes the reasons for the blockade over passenger frustration.

academy · equity · faster feminism

Microaggressions and what your university’s home page says about gender and research

This is the page I see when I open a new browser window. It’s the University of Waterloo home page. I open a lot of browser windows, owing to I fart around on the Internet for a living, so I see this page somewhere between 10 and 50 times a day. One of the cool features of the UW home page is that right up at the top, above the fold, there’s a slide-show of profiled researchers. You can click on their pictures or the brief description of their work in order to see a full length profile. I like this, in principle: it’s a great way to showcase, every week, different aspects of the research life of the university, or, less often, some aspect of student life or teaching.

The problem is, since the beginning of September, the stories have all featured men. Oh, and one featured a spiffy new building, that’s mostly filled with male researchers.

Open browser: smiling dude working in nanotechnology.

Open browser: smiling dude working in nanotechnology.

Open browser: back of some dude, talking about quantum computing.

Open browser: extremely expensive room in extremely expensive building, for quantum nano.

Open browser: smiling Twitter founder (dude), coming for a lecture on being an entrepreneur.

Browser after browser after browser, for a couple of weeks, and I was starting to simmer a low grade annoyance on the back burner of my consciousness. Yesterday, I figured it out: I was feeling excluded, as a woman and as a humanities researcher. I was feeling like the university was trying to represent a normative research agenda and researcher, and it was engineering focused, and male. It felt like a personal insult.

It was a microagression. Just a tiny, little inconsequential thing, that over time, and repeated exposure, turned into, well, feelings of unbelonging and stress. Microaggression: it’s the nanotechnology of exclusions.

I wrote to the head of Communications and Public Affairs (because it’s the PR people who get to decide what the university is all about, and how to pitch it to the world, which is another post, probably) and mentioned both that I love the stories, individually, but that I’d noticed what I’d noticed and I thought it should be fixed.

She wrote back to say that feedback is always welcome and my input will eventually be considered.

Um, no.

I think this is important, actually. You know, I featured in one of those stories last year, in the same week as two other female researchers. Some of my other female colleagues–including some humanists and social scientists, have been profiled, too. I don’t think CPA is being deliberately sexist and exclusive. I just don’t think the balance of fields, disciplines, and genders is something they’re explicitly planning for. They should. Because when you leave it to chance, sometimes September is all men and all engineering all the time. Sometimes, when you don’t make a conscious effort at fostering and celebrating diversity (of fields, of scholars, or even of the balance between the research and teaching and service mandates of the university) you replicate the easy inequities of the culture at large. And that feels icky, to at least one female member of this institution.

change · equity · faculty evaluation · kid stuff

Income inequalities


Back at the beginning of February, my least favourite newspaper reported on UBC’s decision to give all tenure-track, female faculty members a 2 per cent raise. Part of the rationale in extending the raise to all women, and not only those identified as underpaid, was to streamline what would have been an otherwise time-consuming process of identifying individual cases of income inequity. It also, intentionally, makes a strong statement about persistent gender income inequity in academia. By applying the increase across the board, UBC effectively said that this is an issue about gender and about women, rather than reducing it to individual circumstance. 


This is an important statement to make given that the article appeared just days before a report published by the Conference Board of Canada, looking at “How Canada Performs: Society.” While Canada achieved a B grade overall, one of the key areas with only a C grade was the gender income gap. Here Canada ranked 11th out of 17 “peer countries,” and, although the gender income gap has narrowed in recent years, the C grade has remained steady since the 1980s. 

What was most striking to my eye in the Conference Board report was the chart near the bottom of the page detailing relative earnings of women and men by occupation. The data for this chart comes from 2010 and the discussion notes, “Unfortunately, the 2011 census did not gather data on income differences by gender and education.” I assume that this was a casualty of the Harper government’s decision to do away with the long-form census in 2011 but I don’t know this for certain (and I would welcome being corrected or confirmed in the comments). Such a move would be entirely consistent with the Harper government’s track record on gender and equality. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to separate out academic from other occupations, given the manner in which the information is presented. Nevertheless, I assume that professors come under the category of that includes education, placing us in a category that earns, on average, 70% of our male counterparts (again, please correct me if I’m wrong). 

Certainly, there is only so much that one can do with the data as presented here. For instance, I’m not going to assume that I’m only earning 70% of what the men in my department, at my rank, earn. That said this report does demonstrate that for as much as I would like to think that I am being paid equitably relative to my male counterparts, I might not be. More importantly, other women certainly are not. So where do the persistent gender-based income inequities come from? 

In my recent experience, it is abundantly clear to me the role that childbirth and parental leave (as they are termed here) directly affect women’s income at the U of A. I would very much welcome other examples because it doesn’t help to simply equate women’s experiences in academia with the choice of having children (women do not equal mothers). Obviously, gender inequity is not simply about this subcategory of women. 

Nevertheless, how does childbirth and parental leave translate into gender-based income inequality at the UofA? If you are a tenure-track faculty member, each year you have to submit a report detailing your research, teaching, and service work from July 1 to June 30. This annual report is then used as the basis to determine how much of a merit increase you will receive, over and above any across the board increases negotiated by our faculty association. I’m going to spare you the incredibly boring details of our increment process, suffice it to say that it’s a 3 point scale (but as far as I know, no one ever gets a 3), if you get 0s or a string of 0.5s, you’re in trouble, especially pre-tenure. So you aim for 1s or higher. 

Merit increments that you get early on in your career have the longest potential impact, therefore for women who go on childbirth leave (most of whom do so earlier in their career) if their merit increment in that year suffers, their salary over their career suffers with it. And it makes a difference when you are a woman giving birth. The period for which your pay is topped up is 15 weeks for childbirth leave, 10 weeks for parental leave. Each parent is eligible for parental leave and each parent is also eligible for additional unpaid leave (up to one year total) although in this time you only get EI, which if you have a mortgage or another child in daycare, is a recipe for financial disaster. But what all this means is that women giving birth to children, unsurprisingly, go on more leave than their partners and as a result are more likely to not teach in any given year, have limited service commitments (because much service work in a department or university is a year or longer commitment), or have less research output. Meaning they have less to report on come year-end. 

One response to this, still frequently articulated (as was seen in responses to the recent federal court decision regarding childcare) is that women and men who have children are making a choice, and if this choice means that they are not producing as much, then that is the penalty they pay for the choice that they have made. But this response fails to take into account that these people are still working, just as hard as their colleagues, for the portion of the year when they are not on leave. Yet, it becomes more difficult to quantify this work in the absence of clear service and teaching commitments. People bearing children should not be penalized for the fact that service and teaching commitments operate on a schedule that is rarely accommodating to the uncertainties of pregnancy and childbirth (e.g. premature babies, medical emergencies). I was permanently removed (without consultation) from a service position when I went on leave after the birth of my son, rather than simply having a colleague stand in for me to deal with the handful of responsibilities that had to be completed in the months I was on leave. I have colleagues who have been awarded 0 or 0.5 for work completed in a year when they were on maternity or parental leave, due in part to limited teaching or service work in the reporting years. 

There are ways in which our evaluation process attempts to accommodate this issue. If you are on leave for less than 6 months of the year, your performance for the year as a whole is extrapolated based on what you did in the time you were working. It’s crude math, but if you got x amount of work done in 6 months, that work is multiplied by 2 to provide a basis for evaluation for the year as a whole. This means of accommodating the issues created by leave does work for some women. 

But – and here’s one rub – if you’re on leave for more than 6 months in any given reporting year, there is no formula for extrapolation. In this case, you’re conceivably better off slacking off at work for the time that you are back, because there’s little to no assurance that you will be appropriately rewarded for what effort you do put in. Ultimately though, each year when you are awarded a 0 or a 0.5 translates into thousands of dollars less income then if you were awarded a 1, in the course of a 30-year career. 

And here’s the other rub: this problem has been recognized at the UofA for quite some time and a solution has even been proposed and apparently been approved by various levels of governance at the university (although not those that ultimately matter). That solution, from what I understand, is to give anyone on childbirth leave an automatic 1. Certainly, it would not solve the problem of gender-based income inequality in academia, as bearing children is not the only factor at work. But it is one factor at work. And an automatic 1 in our reporting system to recognize the inequities produced by childbirth leave is no more blunt an instrument than a 2% raise for all female faculty members.
academy · administration · change · equity

Taking care of business

Process is key to issues of equity in the academy. It should be obvious, but I nevertheless feel compelled to state the point because it is remarkable how, time and again, since I have been a graduate student and now a faculty member, process (or the lack thereof) has been a recurrent problem.

And it’s not simply process that is key to equity, but clear, well-communicated, effective, and readily adaptable processes. They are tools for change.

One example: a couple years ago, my department chair, who was new to the position and to our institution, asked if we, as a department, could draft a document that laid out some of the governance structures within the department. I piped up that I thought this was a great idea because I too was relatively new and I figured that making such a document available would help new faculty understand how things worked and how to get things done. To my surprise, a number of my senior colleagues then expressed strong opposition to this suggestion on the grounds that such a document would ossify procedures that were at that time relatively flexible and only create unnecessary bureaucracy.

This point about unnecessary bureaucracy was one that I had heard more than once before, and it twigged that there was something more at play here than keeping our work lives “simple.” I had previously been accused of trying to create unnecessary bureaucracy by seeking clearly laid out governance rules when part of an initiative that was required, as part of its larger responsibilities, to do just that, establish a governance structure. (Funny that!)

Now I get that a governance structure can essentially be a non-governing structure. That for governance you can say, for example, that everything will be at the director’s/chair’s’/board’s discretion. That is to me essentially a non-governing governance structure, or perhaps more simply a non-democratic governance structure, and therefore one that I don’t want to participate in creating or then have to be involved with after the fact.

The argument against process on the grounds that it creates “unnecessary bureaucracy” is remarkably effective in academia. Many of us, not in administrative positions, struggle to keep our service responsibilities at an appropriate level (i.e. at 20% of our work time, in the typical 40:40:20 model). Referring to process as “unnecessary bureaucracy” communicates the notion that not only are you wasting your time in constructing or setting out procedures, but that in doing so you are further burdening your colleagues with new responsibilities they neither want or need. A pretty heavy charge.

Plus, we all hate bureaucracy, don’t we? Two things I don’t like: (1) filling out long, detailed paperwork and (2) being told that something is not possible because it goes against a policy that was not obvious or clearly articulated to me.

But that said, I’m also fine with rules. Part of it is a personality thing. My dad is very much a rule person. When my sister and I were teenagers, she found out that you could use a UK 10 pence piece in parking metres and it would mistake it for a loonie. We were going out to dinner, and when my dad parked the car, she dropped the 10 pence piece into the metre, crowing how about we were saving money. My dad then got back in the car and drove to the next available metre because what my sister had done was wrong. Now, were I to find myself in that situation, I would most definitely not move the car. In fact, if that trick still worked, I would save up 10 pence pieces for parking. But, I will say that his outlook has influenced my own, and I am not averse to rules, especially thoughtful ones.

And I would argue that most of the people who I have heard under whatever circumstances express generalized opposition to rules or procedures are people who are also operating with a certain amount of privilege in these same circumstances – whether that privilege is bestowed by gender, race, class, or seniority. This is different from finding a particular process or rule arbitrary, ineffective, or otherwise problematic. This is about being opposed to creating or formalizing a process in the first place.

This is, I think, a key equity issue. Without process, getting things done becomes about who you know. If you are in a position of privilege, for instance, or have people in power who are mentoring you, then you can effectively navigate the byzantine structures in place at all stages of university careers, from entering graduate school, to promotion to full professor.

There is a lot in academia that is never explicit, that isn’t obvious, but that is really important to succeeding. And if you don’t have someone to whom you can put these questions in a casual setting, or who will advise you about things you wouldn’t have even known to ask about in the first place, your path is a lot harder.

Too often, when someone says, “bah, rules just get in the way,” what they mean is that rules only get in the way of working the system to their own advantage. Business as usual.

Clear, well-communicated, effective, and readily adaptable processes make the inner workings of academia more transparent, flexible for everyone (not just those in the know), and responsive. With such processes in play, if you see inequity, or unfairness, or ineffectiveness, you have the tools to respond and by contributing to building such processes, you can help to likewise build better universities.