Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Here we go again: Equity and the Banting postdoc

So, to match the super-doctoral award (Bombardier CGS), the super-recruitment award (Vanier) and the super-CRC (CERC), the federal government has announced the Banting super-postdoc.

In order to avoid another embarrassing episode of sexism laid bare, as happened when the CERC results were announced (19 awards and no women? - but we're not sexist!), universities are required to demonstrate their commitment to equity:
In order to ensure that gender equity issues are considered in an institution's decision to support a given applicant, proposed host institutions will be required to confirm their commitment to gender equity and involve institutional equity officers (or equivalent) in the endorsement of applicants for these awards. [Banting website]
At the UofA, an equity officer will be part of the final institution-level review. After being scanned at the Faculty level and vetted by a SSHRC subcommittee, applications are subject to university-wide endorsement. That stage involves an equity officer in some as-yet-opaque capacity.

Will this process give us the equity we seek? More specifically:
  1. What are the equity goals for the Banting competition? Given the ubiquity of quantitative measures for all aspects of postsecondary life - think university rankings, ratios, research impacts, institutional report cards, etc. - I am struck by the absence of hard targets according to which universities/Ottawa will measure their equity success.
  2. Which women is the Banting for: the postdocs themselves or the women researchers they will work with? The competition is being described as a boon to superstar researchers rather than as a help to promising (post)grad students caught in a vicious market. The explanation for the deplorable CERC results was the familiar demographic excuse that there are simply not enough senior women professors in Canada. If this is the case, measuring equity by the applicant's gender will simply perpetuate the demographic pyramid - especially in a challenging job market, which will do its part to ensure many of these postdocs will never become professors of any kind, let alone senior ones.
  3. Here's a big and obvious question. As we know, equity is not just about gender. How will this competition speak to the other protected grounds: Aboriginality, disability, race/visible difference?
  4. Is the penultimate stage of a four-part review process really the place to take up equity? Cast your mind forward to that moment. The university president is in the room. The review committee is examining applications that cost, conservatively, 110 person hours to craft. All remaining competitors are deserving. But .... The equity officer clears her throat. There is a pause. What happens then? What happens then is that a discourse takes shape. Even if the committee puts aside some applications in favor of others, perhaps others they rejected earlier, the rhetorical ground for pitting equity against excellence has taken shape. In other words, even if we win the Banting, we lose the war.
  5. The Banting postdoc, like the Vanier and the Trudeau awards, emphasizes "leadership" (more on that in future posts). However, unlike the Vanier and Trudeau, the Banting measures leadership in narrow terms, as "demonstrated capacity for leadership in the research domain defined by the sphere of influence achieved to date by the applicant." So my final question: won't the Banting's limited emphasis on research structurally disadvantage women, Aboriginal and racialized applicants, given that we know these groups are disproportionately called on to serve academic and community groups?
I actually posed a version of these questions to SSHRC, through our university's postdoc office. Their answer [sic]:
The goal of the program as it relates to equity is to ensure that each institution has considered equity when endorsing their applicants. In terms of success rates of the program we realize that we aren't able to ensure an equal representation of men and women since the peer review committee does not consider equity as part of their reviews. However, our expectation is that the institutions keep it in mind in the hopes that we receive as equal a balance of total men and women applicants as possible. There is no strict rule about % of men vs. women per institution however, and the idea is that the institutions would indicate to us that equity has been taken into consideration when they are deciding which applicants to endorse. We don't need any more detail than that in the endorsement letter. Other protected grounds are not explicit in our requirements and therefore are left at the institutions own discretion to determine how they are considered in the endorsement process.
Over to you, readers.


  1. Wait, wait.

    I love this one. "The goal of the program as it relates to equity is to ensure that each institution has considered equity when endorsing their applicants."

    So if they have "considered" equity and all the universities send in men applicants then they can't be held accountable, right? Right?

    Seriously, some peoples childrens.

  2. Blergh.

    I want to write a rant here about how, instead of postponing having kids until you get tenure, now you should postpone having kids until you earn superstar status and have all your future grants assured. So, childbearing at 45! Or 50!

    I don't mean to sound like the harping mommy, BUT: with the early part of my career as a professor coinciding with pregnancy, mothering, and the intensities of a new kind of family life, I'm not really able to be an early research star. Frankly, I plan to just keep increasing my pace through my career because it's just not been possible for me to speed out the gate.

    We seem to like to reward precocity: early, fast, fresh. This encourages a single-minded and unbalanced all-the-eggs-in-one-work-basket mentality that is really discouraging to we more yeoman-like (BUT STILL VALUABLE!) researchers.

    For the record, I thought the super-SSHRCs for grad students were a bad idea when they came out: why not just more of the regular doctoral fellowships? Weren't enough 'averagely excellent' PhD students already being denied funding?

  3. I remember one of my earliest "I'm a feminist" debates with a classmate centred around the gendered nature of career and academic success. He was arguing that women and men have equal freedom to choose between career and other concerns, whereas I insisted (and continue to do so to this day) that the models of success that our culture endorses (and rewards) are deeply gendered. SSHRC's painful equity contortions only confirm it: by refusing to acknowledge an underlying structural inequity in the ways in which academic awards and granting bodies construe excellence, they treat equity like a bandaid on a bullet hole.

  4. I couldn't agree with you more, Aimee. The super-postdocs seem to come out of a science model where it's generally accepted that researchers make their big breakthroughs as young men (and I mean men) and then spend the rest of their careers consoidating, running their labs, and resting on their laurels. Think Stephen Hawking and David Suzuki. Research in the humanities and social sciences doesn't often follow that model, especially for women. Think for example of Margaret MacMillan, whose big book, Paris 1919, was published quite late in her (still active) career. This may well turn out to be a more common career profile for women across the disciplines. I think also of Olive Dickason, Metis historian, who (like many women) entered the profession "late" and who filed suit against the University of Alberta for its (then) mandatory retirement policy. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court where, in 1992, she lost in a 5-4 split.

    And, in the Arts, how many of our hot young "stars" go the distance? We hire them with lots of hoopla, lots of multiple increments in the early years, lots of internal awards ... and a whole bunch of them fizzle out and get bitter.

    After almost a quarter century in the profession (creak, creak), I think that pacing one's self is not such a bad idea.

  5. Jo-Ann great point about pacing: I agree!

    Though I would be remiss if I didn't say that from my position as a contract worker who hasn't yet landed a tenure-track job or a post-doc, pacing seems an impossible ideal.

    The Banting--as well as the usual suspects such as the 'normal' SSHRC postdoc and the much-coveted Killams--seems like both a life-line and, a tease. If one gets it, great, there's an amazing line on the CV and two years of 'safety' aka job preparation. If not, well, that was Monday's post...

  6. Telling arguments all. The piety of having to show that the universities have 'considered' equity. Blech.

    Universities and granting agencies alike are paralyzing themselves with the 'rigour' of their review processes. Rigour become mortis: it's a dead end. One could research and write three articles in the time it would take to apply for some of the awards available these days.

    I do like the name of these new awards though. And I like this new blog.

    Pamela Banting

  7. What is this pacing of which you speak? :)

  8. Is there any way for the process to eliminate identifying gender in the applications? I'm thinking of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink when he discusses hiring for symphonies and how many more women were chosen when a simple screen was placed between the applicant and judges. Could we apply the same kind of 'screen' to the identities of these applicants - even at some level where their identity wouldn't be decipherable by profs familiar with them - in order to reduce the possibly unconscious bias being perpetuated?

  9. To make things worse there are some of us who are open about our statuses as minorities or as activist scholars who produce reams of strong research, who are passed over for men with no publications. I'm a graduate student with a hands worth of publications in top rated journals in my field by I barely won external funding. There are SSHRC winners, including big SSHRC winners, who have no publications at all but who happen to have the right references or the right bodies.


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