When the Canadian government created a $200 million pot to attract up to 20 of the world's best researchers in four target areas, university administrators had no trouble finding 36 stars that they wanted to hire. Diversity was another matter, however.
The list of 19 researchers announced this week.
as the inaugural class of Canadian Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) have two things in common: They are all illustrious scientists. And they are all men. In fact, not a single woman was even nominated.
"The fact that only men's names were put forward indicates to me that our ideas about who can succeed in science and who we want to celebrate remain very gendered, and that it runs very deep," says Elana Brief, president of the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology and a physicist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
Joan Herbers, president of the Association for Women in Science and a population biologist at Ohio State University in Columbus, doesn't mince words. "It's hard to believe that there aren't some superstar women out there that Canadian universities might be interested in recruiting," she says. "I'm very disappointed in the outcome."
The first group of CERC hires includes scientists from the United States, Europe, South America, and Greenland. Each will set up shop with $10 million over 7 years at one of 13 Canadian universities. The CERC program is administered jointly by Canada's three research-granting agencies: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. All three are part of the governmental department Industry Canada (IC).
When IC Minister Tony Clement learned that all the CERC finalists were men, he assembled an ad hoc panel to investigate. It was led by Suzanne Fortier, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and included Elizabeth Dowdeswell, president of the Council of Canadian Academies, and Indira Samarasekera, president of the University of Alberta in Canada. The panel found that "the absence of female recipients was not a result of active choices made during the formal review processes of the program," says Lynn Meahan, IC press secretary.
The awards process had two phases, according to Michele Boutin, executive director of the CERC program. In phase 1, 41 Canadian universities submitted 135 proposals describing the research programs to be created at their institutions, but not the specific scientists they would seek to run them. Universities were allowed to submit more than one proposal. The proposals were reviewed by an international committee of 13 scientists, three of whom were women. This group pared the list to 36 proposals from 17 universities.
In phase 2, universities nominated scientists to go with each proposal. None of the 36 nominees was a women. A second committee-composed of 16 scientists and industry leaders, including three women-chose the 19 CERC winners at 13 universities.
Universities that made it to phase 2 were required to "use a fair and equitable process" to select their nominee, says Boutin. She adds that a senior university official had to attest that the nomination process was equitable.
Although the ad hoc panel cleared the process of any blame, the members did note several elements that may have put women at a disadvantage. For example, the CERC competition rewarded universities who put forth senior researchers as nominees. Because women have not been in the field as long as men, many haven't yet reached that level of seniority, says Fortier, who led the panel.
"It's very difficult to compare two types of candidates where both have superb accomplishments but one has 10 years seniority over the other," Fortier says. "A university putting forward a candidate who has that lesser volume of accomplishments is to some degree taking a risk."
Fortier suggests creating two tracks of nominees, one for senior-level faculty and another for midcareer scientists. Awards would be given in both categories. The panel also suggested that universities be required to provide documentation of their recruitment process when they submit their nominee.
Although the first class is now history, Brief and others hope the government won't wait until the next awards cycle in 7 years to address the issue of gender equity. For example, the three agencies that administer the CERC awards could require that universities go further to ensure diversity in the hiring of personnel—including graduate students and postdoctoral fellows—in the labs of the CERC awardees, she suggests. CERC chairs could also create mentoring programs that target junior faculty women in the sciences, to encourage them to seek out such senior positions. If nothing changes, Brief says, "the world could see Canada as a backward nation that doesn't have an appreciation for the richness of diversity."