Friday, May 21, 2010

Research excellence, Part 2

It seems that the recent asymmetric distribution of rewards under the Canada Excellence Research Chair program has become rather widely noticed. 19 men, no women; 18 white men, one visible minority; and (why not throw this in) 4 Chairs established at the University of Alberta, none for the four Montreal universities. [h/t reader Justin]

Industry Minister Tony Clement pronounced himself shocked, and had a quick informal investigation done, which revealed that the 36-name shortlist for the awards was all-male as well. So now the search is on for plausible explanations, and the subalterns are speaking.

Industry Minister Tony Clement...asked three leading female academics on friendly terms with the government to probe what happened. Their report, obtained by The Globe and Mail, finds no deliberate attempt to shut out women, but concludes the tight deadlines for the competition, the areas picked for research and a competition where candidates on the short list had only a 50 per cent chance of winning probably all worked against female candidates. [emphasis added]

The last "explanation" has never been satisfactorily explained (what? women only bet on a sure thing?), but the ad hoc committee cast more light on the first:

The academic "old boys club," also was a factor. With limited time to find and court top researchers, universities resorted to “informal processes” to find candidates, the study finds. "These informal outreach processes may have involved senior researchers identifying potential nominees from among their international peers," it says.

"Informal outreach processes" are an essential part of systemic discrimination. No one is arguing conscious bias here, but old habits, instincts and networks maintain rigid patterns of preference and selection. These are barriers, just as surely as now-abandoned height restrictions for police officers (which weeded out Asians and women), and other not-so-bona fide selection requirements in various job descriptions.

When confronted by such a limit case as the CERC results, there are really only two options to consider if one wants to account for a clearly non-random selection process. First, white males really are brainier and more accomplished in the sciences, and that's that. No less a personage than Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard, appears to be open to the possibility that women just don't have the same innate abilities in this respect.

Or, alternatively, you might want to take a look at how these selections are made: how the pool of candidates is established, the criteria used to define and measure "excellence" (which is hardly an objective universal standard handed down by the gods), and the assumptions and attitudes involved at every step in the process.

It is odd to suggest that women are genetically programmed to be less drawn to engineering and the natural sciences, when ever-increasing female enrollment can be observed in those very disciplines. Systemic discrimination, then, is the only logical explanation. It has taken--and will obviously continue to take--considerable energy to kick out the institutional jams.

Not that all women see things that way. Here's Sumitra Rajagopalan, who happily made it on her own, she insists:

Any systemic bias that might have once existed in science is finished. If anything, science and engineering departments the world over now actively seek female candidates for open positions – and many women find it patronizing. The notions of "equity" and "excellence" are simply incompatible. [emphases added]

Anyone hear the loud buzz of a queen bee in the room?

And here is the National Post's Tasha Kheiriddin, who appears to be the author of this NaPo editorial ("Excellence, not 'equity'"), and who asks:

[H]ow many men teach women’s studies? Has an effort been made to recruit male academics to balance the faculty in women’s studies departments? Or are there just too few qualified men who apply? What about other traditionally “female-dominated” fields of study, like nursing? Have women launched a campaign to get men into those areas? If not, why not? Shouldn’t gender equity be the priority in the hiring practices of every department?

Followed by this unintended bit of hilarity:

As for the charge of gender bias against the government, it is bunk. This government desperately wants to appoint women to all sorts of places, and I can vouch for this first-hand. From 2006-2008 I served on the Judicial Appointments Committee for the Tax Court of Canada (an unpaid position). [emphasis added]

Good to see that her hard work for the Tax Court was valued.
In any case, note the straw-women and false equivalences. The comparison of the sciences with a specifically gender-based discipline like women's studies is disingenuous, or simply muddle-headed. And the intent of her analogy with nursing schools is unclear: there are obvious systemic biases in play there, most notably the "masculinity factor" that discourages men from entering a traditionally female occupation. Should not such biases, in every profession, be identified and eliminated?

Finally, no one is blaming Kheiriddin's beloved Harper government for this mess. The systemic gender bias in the selection had already taken its toll by the time the results of the competition were conveyed to an embarrassed Tony Clement.

More generally, the cognitive dissonance after this scandal broke has been remarkable.
From the letters column in today's Globe & Mail:

Perhaps instead of counting persons of colour and itemizing the gender of the 19 Excellence chairs, one might have focused on their accomplishments and research areas. The spectre of political correctness is a blight upon individual achievement. Skin colour and gender quotas must not be applied [emphasis added] to those who conduct original and fundamental research, and they must be measured only by their achievements. It is time to put aside such childish notions or risk descending into the dystopic mediocrity of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.”

Robert S. Sciuk, Oshawa, Ont.

It never occurs to Sciuk--and his hordes of right-wing allies in the media and elsewhere--that there are already
de facto quotas in place. The male one in this instance appears to be 100%, and the white one, 95%. Unless one is prepared to support the notion of white male supremacy openly, one has to question outrageously biased results like these.

Sometimes the thing really does speaks for itself. The trick is to listen.

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