Canada's top researcher positions continue to lack diversity, U of A study finds

University faculty holding prestigious research roles at Canadian universities are still overwhelmingly white and male, despite diversity and inclusion initiatives, researchers say.

'We need to talk about what kind of climate students learn in'

Professor Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez says the number of Indigenous scholars and scholars of colour in research chair positions is extremely limited. (Anya Zoledziowski/CBC)

Professors holding prestigious research roles at Canadian universities are still overwhelmingly white and male, despite diversity and inclusion initiatives, researchers say.

The Canada Research Chair program offers multiple funding tiers all aimed at retaining and recruiting top academic talent across disciplines for Canadian universities.

A 2019 study led by University of Alberta professor, Malinda Smith, explored the gender and racial breakdowns of two Canada Research Chair ranks: the Canada Excellence Research Chairs and the Canada 150 Research Chairs. 

The study is a continuation of Smith's research exploring racial and gender representation at all levels of university staff, faculty and leadership across the country. 

The Canada Excellence Research Chair positions are worth $10 million over seven years. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government introduced the Canada 150 Research Chairs in 2017. Each of the 26 positions is worth either $350,000 or $1 million for seven years.

According to Smith's research, the Canada Excellence Research Chair program failed to appoint as many women and non-white researchers as white men. 

But the Canada 150 Research Chair data shows a different story. 

Professor Malinda Smith researches gender and racial diversity in Canadian universities. She says more work needs to be done to make post-secondary education more inclusive. (Submitted by Malinda Smith)

Women outnumber men in this tier, with 46 per cent of chair holders identifying as white women and 13 per cent of chair holders identifying as women of colour. 

White men account for 38 per cent of the posts, while men of colour hold four per cent. 

Zero posts were filled by Indigenous scholars.

However, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, these findings don't suggest improvement in academia, Smith said.

"There's been an effort to [appoint women and visible minorities] since 2000 when the first research chairs were distributed," Smith said. 

"With the Canada 150 chairs, finally there is a change in the distribution," Smith said. "But there's only 26 of them, so there is a relatively small cluster compared to the other Canada research tiers."

There are 2,285 research chair postings across Canada. Between 2015 and 2017, less than a third of research chairs were women, 15 per cent were visible minorities and only one per cent identified as Indigenous. 

This matters, Smith said, because Canada's population is increasingly diverse.

"There is a huge disconnect between the Canadian population, the student body and the faculty and university leadership," Smith said. "My research focuses on revealing this huge gap that's not closing."

"We need to talk about what kind of climate students learn in and what kind of climate faculty teach in," she added.

As a Zapotec woman from Oaxaca, Mexico, Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez, is one of two Indigenous female professors who hold a research chair position at the University of Alberta.

"When we think about the number of research chair holders that are either Indigenous or people of colour we are going to see it's extremely limited," Altamirano-Jimenez said.

Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez is one of two Indigenous female professors who hold a Canada Research Chair post at the University of Alberta. (CBC)

Canada Research Chair programs aren't the only university posts lacking diversity; Smith's earlier research shows most professors and university leaders across Canadian faculties continue to identify as white and male. 

"Diversity is essential to excellence in research, excellence in teaching and excellence in imagining other possibilities, and imagining other solutions for the world's problems," Altamirano-Jimenez said.

"When students don't see their background represented in the faculty body, it's one way of basically telling them university is not a place for you," she said. "We need to tell a better story in that regard. We need to tell everyone that university is a place where they can flourish, where they can achieve their full potential."

PhD student Annita Lucchesi knows this personally. 

When Lucchesi learned the University of Alberta has two Indigenous female research chairs — Altamirano-Jimenez and Kim TallBear — she called the news "life-changing."

"To have folks like that to look to, to learn from, to gain mentorship from and to get a hand from, it can make or break a career," Lucchesi said. 

Lucchesi added the lack of representation has forced her to consider career paths outside of academia.

"It's hard to navigate university when the leadership within our field and within our programs doesn't reflect us," she said. 

Lucchesi added academic environments lacking well-established, diverse scholars "can be alienating and sometimes downright hostile."

As a result, minority students are less likely to pursue graduate-level degrees if they don't see themselves reflected, Smith said. 

Most universities across Canada have diversity and inclusion initiatives outlined online, and the government agencies that fund research chairs publish diversity data publicly.

But according to Smith, there is more work to be done, including sustained efforts to hire non-white academics. 

"When it comes to racialized minority students and faculty, universities are not doing nearly enough," Smith said. "There isn't the urgency that I think this issue warrants." 


Anya Zoledziowski is an award-winning multimedia journalist who joined CBC Edmonton after reporting on hate crimes targeting Indigenous women in the US for News21, an investigative journalism fellowship based in Phoenix, AZ.