Gender equity must come from the grassroots

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

March 8, 2007 Ed Cartoon

Today is International Women’s Day, and while it’s easy to think women and men are virtually equal in many areas of society, looking at Western’s faculty shows we still have a long way to go.

Not only does Western have far fewer female than male faculty members and a sizable gender/salary gap, it’s also behind other major research-intensive Ontario universities in many facets of gender equity.

Although women comprise 56 per cent of Western’s instructors, the numbers decrease dramatically as the ranks increase up to full-rank professors, where women represent only 11 per cent.

It’s hard to determine why Western is behind other institutions. Some female Western professors describe a chilly climate facing women as they attempt to shatter the glass ceiling and ascend the ranks where history has prevented women from going before.

They also cite systemic barriers stemming from academia’s traditional inability to accommodate families.

Western has more female undergraduate students than ever, so there’s hope many of these young women aspire to high ranks and the gender inequities may disappear or even flip in the near future.

Despite the promising numbers, systemic barriers don’t change on their own. If the hiring and promotion process and the unfriendly family environment remain the same, today’s young women may face the same chilly climate as their older counterparts.

Also, if today’s young students don’t have positive female role models in the highest positions, they may be discouraged from reaching for those positions in the future.

Some institutions have tried extreme measures like affirmative action. However, this approach risks causing more problems than it solves by lumping all women together and reinforcing stereotypes for those already disadvantaged by them.

Instead, we must start coaching young women at the grassroots level and encouraging them from a young age to reach for the highest positions.

As much as we should encourage women themselves, the system is inherently flawed and must be changed.

Some hiring committees may hold unconscious attitudes which make them prejudiced against hiring women for prestigious positions. They may worry women will take extended maternity leave or not work as late due to family commitments. These factors may make women seem like risky financial bets.

University administration should re-evaluate hiring processes and interviews and examine services within each department and faculty to ensure even the smallest policies aren’t making the chilly climate even colder.

Western must create a hiring environment in which women and men aren’t forced to choose between families and academic careers.

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