SPECIAL REPORT

On The Rocky Road To Reform

Women face a backlash to demands for equality in the upper ranks where tradition rules

BRENDA DALGLISH October 21 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

On The Rocky Road To Reform

Women face a backlash to demands for equality in the upper ranks where tradition rules

BRENDA DALGLISH October 21 1991

On The Rocky Road To Reform

Women face a backlash to demands for equality in the upper ranks where tradition rules

At Brock University president Terrence White’s annual beginning-of-term dinner last month, 17 newly hired tenuretrack professors were proudly introduced to the rest of the faculty. Twelve of them were women. The happy occasion was a sign that at Brock and other Canadian universities, the bearded face of academia is changing. But while the number of women professors has been increasing across Canada—and universities now boast more female students than men—ivy-covered walls this fall are echoing a female battle cry for reform on two key fronts: equal employment opportunities in the senior ranks of academe and encouragement for female scholars who may contest the conventions established by the largely male academics who preceded them. That call for change got a boost last week in the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education by Stuart Smith. It said that in the 1989-1990 school year, 53 per cent of all students enrolled in Canadian universities were women, but from the level of full professor up to the presidential suite, women are “a distinct minority.” As the report stated bluntly, “If banks were places where the women did the work and the men constituted the executive, universities are looking rather like places where the women study and the men run the institutions.”

The road to reform so far is paved with good intentions. But even at Brock, where there are still three male professors for every female faculty member—a better ratio for women than the national average of 4 to 1—the number of female professors is unlikely to equal the number of males until at least the next century. In contrast with university faculties, the number of women students has doubled in the past 20 years, while the number of men has increased by about 25 per cent.

As the number of women students has grown, universities have responded by stepping up efforts to improve security on campus by opening women’s studies centres and sexual harassment offices, and by beginning debates on employment equity programs. But many university women are impatient. Says Marsha Hanen, president of the University of Winnipeg: “Whenever you talk about affirmative action, you still hear the old arguments about how quality will suffer. That is absolutely insulting, as if women were less qualified than men.”

Many university officials predict that campuses will be volatile in the coming years as growing numbers of women challenge the universities’ male traditions. Says Loma Marsden, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and a member of the Canadian Senate: “We have reached the point where it is a real struggle for power and it cannot be put off any longer.”

The battle is likely to be most tenaciously fought over z the issue of faculty jobs. In g 1989-1990, only about 20 I per cent of the full-time facul8 ty at the 46 universities in the « Maclean ’s survey were wom£ en, up significantly from 14 per cent in 1976-1977. The percentage of women in administrative jobs, including department chairmen, deans, vice-presidents and presidents, is even smaller. Those disparities continue even as the percentage of women earning doctorates—the basic job requirement for a professor—has tripled in the past 20 years, to 30 per cent of all PhD graduates in 1989.

In part, the low percentage of female faculty is due to the relatively low rate of faculty hiring in the past decade. But university officials acknowledge that discrimination also is a factor. Says George Pedersen, president of the University of Western Ontario in London: “It would be naiVe to believe that there isn’t some kind of Old Boys’ network that operates in many institutions when it comes to hiring.”

To end that discrimination, most universities are adopting new and often controversial employment equity programs. Brock, in St. Catha-

riñes, Ont., increased the number of women faculty members by implementing a positive action program in September, 1990, that requires each department to make special efforts to find women applicants if the percentage of female faculty in that department is less than 35 per cent.

Employment equity and target programs for hiring, some university officials believe, have produced an antifemale backlash. Elspeth Baugh, the dean of women at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says that she believes employment equity was an underlying cause of the “No means ‘Kick her in the teeth’ ” signs that sprouted on campus last year after women launched a “No g means no” campaign against o rape. Adds Baugh: “Employ^ ment equity polarized a lot of j young men who see it as a § threat to their future. We g were incredibly complacent to believe that such a major social change could be accomplished without a backlash.”

Signs of a backlash are appearing on other campuses across the country. A Toronto-based men’s rights group, In Search of Justice, which claims more than 2,000 members nationally, recently plastered the University of Toronto with posters calling affirmative action “reverse discrimination.” Since then, group founder Ross Virgin, a health-care worker, says that his office has been inundated with calls from male students. The students are more vocal today, he claims, largely because the women’s movement is becoming increasingly “anti-male.” But Winnipeg’s Hanen, one of the three female university presidents among the 46 institutions in the Maclean’s survey, says that universities have a long history of discriminating against women and other minorities. Hanen adds that when she was an undergraduate in philosophy at the Ivy League’s Brown University in Providence,

R.I., some professors frequently ridiculed and demeaned their female students. “It was just taken as a given,” she recalls, “that all women were less intellectually capable than men.”

Hanen adds that when a few women did get over those hurdles, they regularly were denied scholarships and jobs because of the traditional view that they would waste

their education by getting married and abandoning their careers. In 1966, Hanen was the first woman hired by the department of philosophy at the University of Calgary. Still, about 10 years later when she was on a hiring committee at the university, one of the male members of the committee told her bluntly: “We don’t need another woman—we have enough women.”

The growth of women’s studies on campus and the heightened concerns raised by women teachers and students have already had an impact on the way subjects are taught. Everything from Shakespeare to sociology is actively under fresh scrutiny by female scholars at schools across Canada. The University of Calgary’s Susan Stone-Blackburn, for one, is doing pioneer research into Aphra Behn, a now-forgotten British Restoration playwright and novelist, and the first Englishwoman to earn her living by writing. Behn was one of the most popular dramatists of the 17th century, but was later ignored by predominantly male scholars. Says Prof. Stone-Blackburn: “I have 11 anthologies of Restoration plays, and she’s not in any of them. I did my PhD in drama and I’d never even heard of her.”

Still, many women activists acknowledge that universities are more receptive to reform than most other institutions in society. Compared with the corporate world, universities often have led the way in opening day care centres, taking action to prevent sexual harassment, appointing women presidents and implementing employment equity guidelines. Says Western’s Pedersen: “There is more activity going on in this area within universities than in any other part of our society. Yet there is also more criticism within the universities than anywhere else.” But as the universities hire more women and then encourage them to speak their minds, the complaints are likely to grow even louder.

BRENDA DALGLISH