Gender gap distribution of Canada Research Chairs and Canada Excellence Research Chairs

February 16, 2010


Wendy Robbins, University of New Brunswick
Guest Contributor

“Many of us in this room have worked our whole career to make things fairer, and now you are pushing us right back!” My comment was a spontaneous reaction to René Durocher, who was outlining the Government of Canada’s new multimillion-dollar Canada Research Chairs (CRC) Program to a meeting of the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada (HSSFC) in 2000. The several hundred HSSFC members on the Chateau’s ballroom floor sprang to their feet in a standing ovation. My comments had struck a deep chord. I was beginning my first term as the HSSFC’s Vice-President, Women’s and Equity Issues; I saw it as my responsibility to take action.

Despite touting “excellence” and “innovation” in 2000 when it was introduced, the CRC Program was structured to entrench the status quo. It further marginalized humanities and social sciences researchers. It also ignored the academy’s systemic disadvantaging of equity-group academics.

When the first appointments to the CRC Program were announced to senior members of the research community, I started counting those Chairs given to women, to men, and those that might be either. I did a rudimentary gender analysis, which the CRC secretariat under Marc Renaud later confirmed: my gender analysis revealed that only 14% of the early Chairs had gone to women. Only 22% of Tier II Chairs and a mere 10% of the more prestigious Tier I Chairs went to women. All of the top Program officials were men, as was 83% of its international panel of peer reviewers. I reported the troubling appointment data in the first of a series of annual “Ivory Towers: Feminist and Equity Audits.”    It made national news in May 2001.

In 2003, with the legal advice of Rosemary Morgan at the Canadian Association of University Teachers, a team of eight women from across Canada,  laid a formal Complaint, alleging discrimination before the Canadian Human Rights Commission.


Cohen et. al. v. Industry Canada was settled in 2006 by a negotiated agreement.  Yet data still show that women, who are a third of full-time faculty in Canada, continue to be under-represented in CRC appointments. Although the percentage has slowly risen, reaching 25% in 2009, this represents only 17% of Tier I and 31% of Tier II Chairs. No data are reported for other equity groups—Aboriginal peoples, racialized minorities, and persons with disabilities—despite their inclusion in the settlement agreement.

Meanwhile, in 2008 the government invested $200 million in what some call the “uber chairs” program, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs. According to the CERC website, the program seeks “to attract and retain the world’s most accomplished and promising minds.” Some critics instead characterize the CERC as an affirmative action program for White, male, non-Canadians.  Its steering committee is 80% male. The settlement agreement had required adherence to basic fair-employment practices such as advertising vacancies so that the pool of qualified applicants is as large as possible. In the eyes of social conservatives apparently this diluted “excellence” with “equity.”

Such zero-sum thinking has a long history. One strategy that groups in power use to validate their power is to dismiss the claims of those less powerful, defining any difference as deficiency. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the “lowering the standard” rationalization was used by some male gatekeepers in the academy when women first demanded to be let in as students. It has resurfaced in the “equity/excellence” debate to try to justify such things as women’s under-representation in full professorships and top research positions. This latest “blame the victim” strategy is based on the belief that the best defence is a good offence. It ignores counter-evidence, such as problematic notions of excellence (Side and Robbins, 2007), prejudicial expectations (Ridgeway, 1997), gender schemas (Valian, 2004), and implicit biases (Shalala et al., 2006). As Virginia Woolf noted a hundred years ago: “Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis.”

Dr. Wendy Robbins is a Professor of English, Coordinator of Women Studies at University of New Brunswick, and an academic activist, co-founder of the Canadian feminist discussion list PAR-L. She is a 2007 recipient of a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case.  Email:


Ridgeway, Cecilia. 1997. “Interaction and the Conservation of Gender Inequality: Considering Employment.” American Sociological Review 62(2): 218–35.

Robbins, Wendy, et al. Ivory Towers: Feminist and Equity Audits. Annual bilingual statistical report, with Rosemary Morgan and John Hollingsworth, CAUT, Judy Stanley, and Michèle Ollivier, PAR–L. Ottawa: Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (CFHSS), yearly 2001–07.

Shalala, Donna and the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. 2006. Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.  Washington: National Academies Press.

Side, Katherine, and Wendy Robbins. 2007.“Institutionalizing Inequalities in Canadian Universities: The Canada Research Chairs Program.” NWSA Journal. Special issue: Women, Tenure, and Promotion. 19(3): 163–81.

Valian, Virginia. 2004. “Beyond Gender Schemas: Improving the Advancement of Women in Academia.” NWSA Journal 16(1): 207–20.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. London: Granada Publishing, 1980. 34-35.