The great Canadian equity fail

When you see institutions make an effort, and they focus, they can achieve some success. When universities are committed to achieving results, they do it.
Malinda Smith

Senior ranks in the Canadian academy are still far too white, falling prey to the “social injustice of sameness.”

Canada’s universities are failing at promoting visible minorities to positions of leadership, new University of Alberta research reveals.

In a 2016 study of the U15, the country’s top research-intensive universities, U of A political scientist Malinda Smith found not a single woman of visible minority in the senior ranks, and visible minority men at only four universities.

Though some universities may have employment policies encouraging diversity because it is the law, “most university employment equity policies and certainly leadership diversity policies are ineffective," said Smith.

“Not a single university has any major structure for actually improving representation beyond lip service. They may have a senior adviser on women, or on Aboriginal issues, but not a senior adviser on visible minorities."

It’s been more than 33 years since Justice Rosalie Abella conducted her Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, which looked at conditions for women, visible minorities, Indigenous people and persons with disabilities in Canada. Abella concluded that simply waiting on the world to change, or acting in isolation, is no solution to inequality.

No policy = no change

“Voluntary measures are an unsatisfactory response to the pervasiveness of systemic discrimination in Canadian workplaces,” wrote Abella. “What is needed to achieve equality in employment is a massive policy response to systemic discrimination.”

That massive policy response never happened, and as a result neither did significant change in representation. And the equity failure is not confined to universities, said Smith—it cuts across all sectors of society, public and private, including the judiciary, police forces and the CBC.


Within universities, however, Smith’s results show an equity failure at every level down the management chain—among deans and even chairs. It’s not that universities don’t want to be more inclusive, she said. In fact, most have endorsements of equity in their vision statements and hiring policies, and all of them tweeted news of Smith’s equity study, openly acknowledging the problem. It’s just that no one seems to have made a deliberate, conscious effort to make change.

"There was the perception of progress, because universities had been talking about it for so long,” said Smith. “There's a disconnect between the statements and what's actually happening. People take the talk as if it were a sign of change on the ground.

"We want universities to lead, and yet their approach to these kinds of issues seems not to be informed by either history or research. As long as this happens, we continue to operate according to the tyranny of low expectations and deficit thinking."

U of A President David Turpin, also vice-chair of the U15, agreed the lack of diversity in the Canadian academy is indeed a big problem. He conducted his own study on the gender gap among Canadian university presidents two years ago and found no improvement in the last 20 years.

“Malinda's work reflects a reality, and so the question is, what can we do to support diversity more effectively?" he said. Actively providing opportunities and mentorship to those interested in taking on leadership roles is one tactic, as well as “supporting them like mad when they are in those roles.”

The sameness trap

Rather than conscious and intentional discrimination, which likely only happens on occasion, Smith blames the lack of diversity on the implicit and largely unconscious preference for sameness—a natural tendency to be drawn towards those most like us—along with a failure to confront our own biases.

“There is also a tendency to see visible minorities as people who are immigrants or new, not as people who have been here for hundreds of years and have always been part of the fabric of Canada,” she said.

And while some progress has been made on gender, it can distract from the failure to achieve equity on other fronts, added Smith.

“Universities have not recognized or noticed yet that in fact all the people benefiting from gender equity are primarily white."

What that does show, however, is that when universities put their minds to tackling a problem, as they have on gender equity, they can make real change.

"When you see institutions make an effort, and they focus, they can achieve some success," said Smith. "When universities are committed to achieving results, they do it.”

Smith argues curriculum design can also drive diversity. The U of A’s political science department, for example, is the most diverse in the country, and one of only a few to offer gender and politics as a major doctoral field of study.

“Our strengths are in international relations and comparative politics, including China, East Asia, Latin America, and Middle East and Islamic studies, so lots of scholars and students gravitate to the program.”

The department of 28 faculty members has reached gender parity: of the women, 31 per cent are either visible minority or Indigenous; of the men, 50 per cent are visible minority or Indigenous.

Making visible progress

The composition of Canadian society—and of the student body professors teach in the classroom—is rapidly changing, said Smith, and “for universities to assume a leadership role, they need to more accurately reflect that diversity.”

Forty per cent of respondents indicated they were visible minorities according to a 2016 survey of first-year students at 34 Canadian universities. Roughly 33 per cent of all students are now visible minorities.

“You have to actually grapple with unconscious biases, and the universities that do that will be leading into Canada's future and positioning themselves to lead globally,” says Malinda Smith.

One solution is to insist on increased representation of visible minorities on hiring and selection committees, or perhaps introduce blind vetting of applications in some situations. Even a name on a resume can trigger biases and misconceptions, said Smith.

She also recommended cluster hiring: “You can’t hire a token person here, a token person there. You need to hire a cluster of, say, five.”

“And just to be clear, visible minorities are available, they are qualified,” she recently told Ricochet, an independent media outlet. “Stats Canada suggests it is the group that is most underemployed, the group of PhDs that is most underemployed in the academy.”

But the problem of the equity gap goes beyond universities, cutting across every sector of Canadian society. For that reason, Smith is calling for another royal commission on visible minorities, one that accounts for their enormous contributions to Canada, but which also comes up with concrete recommendations for change.

"You have to actually grapple with unconscious biases, and the universities that do that will be leading into Canada's future and positioning themselves to lead globally, because the world is becoming socially much more diverse.”