Leading on equity and diversity matters: Yes we can, and yes we will!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Malinda S. Smith, Vice-President, Equity Issues

Canada’s rapidly changing demographic reality is shaped by globalization, migration and diversity. Our population growth is driven by racialised (visible) minorities and Aboriginal people. Currently constituting 4.1 percent of the overall population, census data show Aboriginal people, particularly Inuit and First Nations, are growing at twice the rate of the general population. When Canada marks the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, one in five Canadians will be a racialised minority. And projections show that by 2031, racialised minorities will make up 63 percent of Toronto’s, 54 percent of Vancouver’s and 31 percent of Montreal’s population.

Arguably ‘diversity matters’ is the new common sense in institutions long known for their monochromatic composition. The ‘Ivory Tower’ has reached its past due date. One university in Alberta promotes its approach as the ‘diversity advantage.’ Some leading universities celebrate being among ‘Canada’s top diversity employers.’ Diversity is part of their competitive edge in the global drive to recruit talent. As a Carnegie Mellon study put it almost a decade ago, an organisational culture is shaped by diversity matters not just in terms of what we create or produce or even how we do it in some technical or even artistic sense. It is inextricably linked to who we are and how this inclusive ‘we’ shapes our institutions and our world:

A prominent feature of the culture we seek is diversity, because diversity broadens the educational experiences of all ... furthers our competitive strengths, advances our university’s inclusiveness and positions us for influence in a global society. We believe that students who graduate from a university with a diverse population are better prepared for the social, cultural and technical demands of the workplace, and are better able to participate as citizens of local, national and international communities.

The benefits of diversity recently were underlined by University of Alberta’s President Indira Samarasekera, who was selected as one of Canada’s leading nation builders. “I think our society isn’t balanced if you don’t have the contribution of both genders, in addition to people of different ethnic origins and different racial backgrounds. We all know that diversity is a strength. That’s what you see in nature. So why would you rob ourselves of ensuring that we have it?”

So if the Canadian population is marked by a ‘diversity of diversities’ and if ‘diversity is a strength,’ how are our workplaces and particularly our institutions of higher learning doing?

This question is difficult to answer. Unlike the corporate sector, and despite employment equity audits, we do not have a generally accepted report card for assessing progress in Canadian universities and colleges.

A number of studies emphasise why ‘equity (still) matters’ in our efforts to engender diversity, inclusivity and fairness. In “Gender and racial difference in promotions,” Alison Konrad and Margaret Yap analyse the career trajectories of some 22,338 employers at a Canadian company and found that career opportunities continue to be shaped by gender and race. After controlling for education, age, years of experience and performance evaluations, they found that, “the rates of promotion of white men at all levels, from entry-level to middle managers to leaders, were consistently higher. On average, men were 4.5 per cent more likely to receive promotions than white females, 7.9 per cent more likely than minority males and 16.1 per cent more likely than minority females.”  Glass ceilings, sticky floors and mid-level bottlenecks limit the advancement of women, giving rise to a ‘gender penalty.’ They also found a ‘double bias’ against women from racially diverse backgrounds.

One of the reasons for the continued preferential hiring and promotion of white men they suggest is ‘unconscious bias’ and the tendency by those engaged in hiring to self-replicate. Employers tend to preferentially hire and disproportionately promote people they feel ‘comfortable’ with or who they think would ‘fit in.’ “To be biased isn’t evil but human. Everyone is more comfortable with similar others,” Konrad suggests.  However, unless unconscious biases are acknowledged, the monochromatic composition of organisations will persist and, despite all the diversity talk, highly qualified women and minorities will continue to face biases and barriers that inhibit advancement.

The discourse on diversity may, in fact, obscure the persistence of systemic inequities.  A number of other studies on racialised minorities in the workplace give reason for pause. A 2009 Catalyst report, “Career Advancement in Corporate Canada: A focus on visible minorities, diversity and inclusion practices,” indicates that too many of these workers were “less satisfied with their careers, less likely to report positive experiences and perceptions regarding their workplace and more likely to perceive workplace barriers compared to non-racialised workers.” These findings are consistent with those in Statistics Canada’s Ethnic Diversity Survey, which found that some 20 percent of racialised minorities – nearly 600,000 people – reported experiences of discrimination and inequitable treatment based on race, skin colour, ethnicity, language or accent, and religion. Whether real or perceived, if such conditions are not addressed proactively, they may pose serious challenges to long-term social well being and economic prosperity.

Like Konrad and Yap’s study on the corporate sector, the CAUT report on universities – “A Changing Academy?” – confirms what we have known for some time: gender and race biases and barriers shape the differential fortunes of women and racialised minorities. Despite “some notable progress in the past decade towards greater diversity, the Canadian academy remains largely white and male. Census data shows an ongoing underrepresentation of women, First Nations, and visible minority professors.” So despite the diversity talk:

•    Women faculty members make up about 36% of assistant professors, 36% of associate professors and only 21% of all full professors;
•    Women faculty members earn 88.8% of the average salaries of their male counterparts;
•    Aboriginal people are largely absent across the ranks of the professoriate, making up only 2% of faculty members;
•    Visible minority faculty members make up about 17% of the professoriate and earn well below the average salaries of all demographic groups.

Studies consistently show a gender and racial hierarchy in earnings. CAUT reports that, “Both women and visible minorities experience an earnings gap and experience higher unemployment than their white male colleagues. Aboriginal peoples continue to be the most underrepresented equity seeking group among the ranks of Canada’s university professors.” The racialised earnings gap is significant:

Census data also reveal that visible minority university teachers experience an earnings gap. In 2005, all professors earned an average of about $77,000, while visible minority professors earned just under $69,400, for an earnings gap of about 10%. This was slightly lower than the earnings gap of 12% recorded in 2000.

The earnings gap is also gendered according to the Statistics Canada 2010 survey, “Salaries and Salary Scales of Full-time Teaching Staff at Canadian Universities, 2008/2009: Final Report.” The survey found that, “[m]ale professors at Canadian universities on average earn higher salaries than their female colleagues – with the discrepancy reaching more than $20,000 at some institutions.”

Time-lag often is given as an explanation for the gender wage gap, meaning that the gap reflects the historical bias in which universities privileged hiring men and, second, that there are more men in full professor positions where the salaries tend to be higher. While time-lag may account for some of the salary gap discrepancies, greater analysis is needed to assess salary offers at hiring, and the distribution of market supplements. Perhaps more useful, we need studies which control for age, experience and performance. In the case of the racialised wage gap, other explanations are given, such as immigrant status, education levels, foreign credentials, and proficiency in English and French. These factors may be part of the story; however, at least one notable study suggests these factors do not explain all the variance in the wage gap.

As well, the CAUT report notes, “[t]his earnings gap cannot be explained by differences in job qualifications alone. It is likely the result of institutional practices and salary structures that are discriminatory in effect, as well as overt discrimination in hiring and promotion decisions. In fact, a similar though less pronounced gap exists in the labour market as a whole.”

And, so, as we welcome 2011, we must acknowledge that in an ever more diverse Canada, inequities persist and must be confronted with renewed determination. As then Judge Rosalie Silberman Abella concluded in the 1984 final report of the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, the systemic barriers and obstacles faced by women and minorities, “are so formidable and self-perpetuating that they cannot be overcome without intervention. It is both intolerable and insensitive if we simply wait and hope that the barriers will disappear over time.”

“Equality in employment will not happen unless we make it happen,” was Judge Abella’s conclusion.  Then, as now, the main challenge to achieving equity is not whether we can make it happen. Rather, it is whether we will make it happen. Some institutions are playing the “wait and hope” game, others are saying, “yes we can” and others still are showing leadership by saying  “yes we will.”

Malinda S. Smith is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta and the Federation’s vice-president, Equity Issues.


Equity Matters


Interculturalism and pluralism