Minister looks for signs of gender bias in federal science departments

Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan has made it clear that gender equity in science is a big priority for her. And now she’s looking beyond universities to scientists employed by the federal government.

Kirsty Duncan previously targeted gender gap among university researchers

Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan has made gender equity in science a priority. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan has made it clear that gender equity in science is a big priority for her. And now she's looking beyond universities to scientists employed by the federal government.

Duncan said in an interview in Toronto this week that she has asked science-based departments in the federal government to collect demographic data about their staff following a union survey that found:

  • 42 per cent of female federal scientists, engineers and researchers who responded thought gender bias was a career barrier.
  • 27 per cent believe men are favoured in opportunities for leadership roles.

But Duncan isn't relying on the union's own study.

"I think we have to know what the data is," she said.

The survey was released in March by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents more than 15,000 federal scientists, engineers and researchers in 40 science-based departments and agencies.

Duncan says up-to-date data about the makeup of the federal science workforce will be important for planning purposes as older scientists retire. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

Duncan said she had already asked Iain Stewart, the new head of the National Research Council, "What do our stats look like?" The NRC has since completed "a large study," and she is asking for similar data from the deputy ministers of all other science-based departments.

Scientists at the NRC were one of two groups (the other being a group of researchers spread across many federal departments) flagged by the union as having the lowest representation of women compared to the pool of qualified women in the workforce available to be hired, based on its own analysis from its member database and from government science hiring competitions.

The analysis also found "a diminishing proportion of women to men" occupying higher-level positions in science departments.

The analysis is part of a report about gender bias that also includes results from the voluntary survey, conducted online by Environics Research between May 29 and June 27, 2017. It was sent to 16,377 employees, and 3,025 (18 per cent) responded. It included not only questions related to gender, but other issues such as whether they feel they can speak freely about their work.

Susan O'Donnell, a member of the PIPSC science advisory committee and lead author of the PIPSC report, said the union is delighted the minister has asked for further research.

"Because it's clearly an issue that's not going to get better until the government devotes the attention and resources to it."

Duncan suggested the data about the makeup of the federal science workforce will also be important for planning for the future as older scientists retire.

Diversity and excellence

Gender equity is something Duncan, a former medical geographer who studied diseases like the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, has already shown she is passionate about.

"As a former scientist who happens to be a woman, it was not always easy, and I spent 25 years fighting for diversity in research," she said. Last year, she wrote an opinion piece about her experiences, including being paid in the bottom 10th percentile at her university and being told it was because she was a woman.

"We know that diversity and research excellence go hand in hand," Duncan said. "We need different ideas, different perspectives."

She gave several examples where male-dominated research has let women down, such as voice-recognition software calibrated to male voices, early airbags designed for men that injured women and children, and the first artificial heart valves, designed to fit a male-sized heart.

But her passion isn't driven purely by pragmatism. She also cited stories she didn't expect to hear about — the negative experiences that women are still having in science.

"A lot of young would women would come up and cry in my arms, no exaggeration. And I was determined that I would take action."

The first move, she said, was reinstating the University College Academic Staff Survey that was cancelled by the previous Conservative government.

"I need the data," she said of the survey. "Are women progressing through the ranks at the same rate as male colleagues or Indigenous people or people from minority backgrounds or persons with disabilities, and are they making equal pay?"

More recently, Duncan implemented equity rules for the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program and threatened to withhold Canada Research Chairs funding from universities that don't meet equity targets set in 2006 within the next two years.

"To the [science] community's credit, there are changes being made," she said, noting that women made up 58 per cent of 24 recipients of the Canada 150 Research Chairs announced in March. The program aims to attract researchers from abroad with offers of either $350,000 or $1 million a year for seven years.

About the Author

Emily Chung

Science and Technology Writer

Emily Chung covers science and technology for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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