Canadian universities failing at diversity: study

Whiteness of university leadership 'an equity fail,' according to lead researcher
Photo: Students sit on the University of Saskatchewan campus. By Jordon Cooper.

Despite commitments to diversity and equity, a recent study shows that universities in Canada are still predominantly led by white men. And the lead researcher says it’s time for the government to call a royal commission on visible minorities.

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The country’s 15 research-intensive universities constitute a group known as the U15, which claims on its website to “[reflect] the cultural and intellectual breadth of our nation.”

At eight universities of the U15, white men make up the majority of the senior leadership team. At three universities, white women make up the majority. The leadership teams of the remaining four members of the U15 are approaching gender parity.

Racialized men are included in the executive ranks of only four members of the U15.

Not one women of colour or Indigenous person can be found.

“It’s impossible that would happen by accident or randomly,” said Malinda Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta who led the research, in a phone interview. “That is an equity fail.”

Leadership of the U15
Many Canadian universities still have all-white leadership teams. Click to enlarge.
Nancy Bray

A 30-year debate

The concept of employment equity — which involves the removal of employment barriers for historically disadvantaged groups — arose from the 1984 Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, chaired by Justice Rosalie Abella, which investigated conditions for women, visible minorities, Indigenous people, and persons with disabilities.

“The Commission has concluded that voluntary measures are an unsatisfactory response to the pervasiveness of systemic discrimination in Canadian workplaces,” wrote Justice Abella. “What is needed to achieve equality in employment is a massive policy response to systemic discrimination.”

The Employment Equity Act that followed in 1986 applies to federally regulated industries, but its reach extends to post-secondary institutions that receive money through a federal contract. Today, post-secondary institutions across the country have employment equity policies.

Yet the diversity gap study shows these policies are not working.

This sameness is rarely questioned by those around the table.

Minelle Mahtani, a professor of human geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough, said the research “shows some important and disturbing trends in equity and inclusion at our public institutions.”

“The most important point that comes clear in the study is that the individuals who have benefitted most from [employment equity] policies designed to support marginalized peoples at universities are, in fact, white women,” said Mahtani, who was not involved in the research, in an email.

Visible minorities and Indigenous people continue to find the door closed to them.

“It’s not just at the senior level,” said Smith. “It’s at the level of the deans, at the level of university chairs. At all levels there’s a blockage.”

“We have been talking about this for 30 years,” she added. “The numbers overall in 30 years have not significantly changed, which tells me most university employment equity policies and certainly leadership diversity policies are ineffective.”

“It’s very hard to take universities seriously that they’re committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion if in fact they can’t practice it themselves.”

‘The social injustice of sameness’

Why do visible minorities and Indigenous people keep finding themselves shut out, despite decades of planning at universities to open the door to them?

“Most universities adopted employment equity because it was the law. To me, it never became integrated into the fabric of the academy,” said Smith.

Malinda Smith is a professor at the University of Alberta and the president of the Academic Women's Association.
The Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Exclusion can occur consciously and unconsciously. Smith points to affinity bias, where people tend to mentor, hire, and promote individuals who are like them. The effect is the replication of homogeneity, what Smith refers to as “the social injustice of sameness.” This sameness is rarely questioned by those around the table.

“They cannot continue walking into a room and not notice that everybody is just like them. How is that possible? And people like me need to know that when I walk into the room I’m not going to be the only one,” said Smith.

While some recent progress can be seen for Indigenous people, especially since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Smith said there is still silence when it comes to visible minorities.

In need of a shakeup

One simple step to address the situation is to diversify the composition of selection and hiring committees.

“You would not believe the all-white committees, or all-male committees, still, in 2016,” said Smith. “You need to hire more, whether that’s cluster hiring, which is to say 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. Stats Canada suggests it is the group that is most underemployed, the group of PhDs that is most underemployed in the academy.”

“These universities do not reflect the communities that they serve.”

Mahtani said the diversity gap study results are particularly disappointing because “for equity initiatives to be successful, they must come from top-down.”

“Insights in strategic diversity leadership show that there must be support from the presidential office for initiatives to take root within the rest of the organization,” she said. “We cannot assume that white women will support initiatives that will lead to greater racial diversity at our institutions, unfortunately.”

Likewise, having a president who is a person of colour does not ensure that equity and inclusion will follow, added Mahtani.

“There needs to be a team of people who support diversity and inclusion initiatives at the top — and that team must include people of colour and Aboriginal peoples as well.”

For Smith, 30 years of the status quo, including reversals during the Harper decade, have led her to a major recommendation.

“The government needs a royal commission on visible minorities. We’ve had one on women. We’ve had one on Aboriginal people. We’ve never had one on visible minorities. I am at the point where I think we need such a shakeup in thinking … to make a difference.”

A larger story of disconnection

Universities may sometimes seem set apart from everyday life, but they are part of communities, and they draw their student body from those communities.

A 2016 survey of first-year university students at 34 Canadian universities found that 40 per cent of respondents indicated they were visible minorities.

Even accounting for international students, not all of whom can be considered visible minorities, “you’re talking 33% of all students” being visible minorities, as compared to 22% of all Canadians ages 15 to 24 who are visible minorities, wrote Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, in a blog post.

“Our student bodies are diverse, and yet the people in the front of the classroom or in leadership are unlike the people they purport to represent,” said Smith. “These universities do not reflect the communities that they serve.”

“Our universities have not even begun to talk about that question.”

The problem isn’t confined to universities. Similarly, said Smith, many public institutions in Canada do not reflect the diversity of the broader society, including police forces, the judiciary, and the country’s public broadcaster, the CBC.

“There’s a larger story behind these kinds of projects of raising attention to the diversity gap in university leadership,” said Smith.

“We are coming up on the 150th anniversary of Canada, which is almost unique in the world in terms of the Indigenous heritage but also a place where you have the most significant numbers of racialized minorities and immigrants. In 50 years you’re going to have a greater social transformation. We’re going to be constituted by a majority made up of multiple minorities.”

“In Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, increasingly Edmonton and Calgary, you’re already witnessing this. And yet institutions of higher education, which should be leading us in thinking about this, how we embrace and engage this diversity, how we make sure it’s one which leads to innovation and creativity instead of conflict — our universities have not even begun to talk about that question.”

“Whole groups of people, whole bodies of knowledge, insights, experiences, are being shut out year after year.”

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