Equity & Excellence are Mutually Conducive; A response to Ms. Wente, Globe & Mail June 10th

Dear Ms Wente

I read with interest your opinion piece in the June 1oth issue of the G & M. The piece was, I assume, intentionally provocative. I am compelled to respond because yours is a voice of privilege, on a national platform. You suggest that academia operates within a system that is fair and equal but surely you know that, like the rest of society, this is a falsehood. But the most privileged are the last to see inequities because they have benefited the most.

In my work over the last 30 years, I have heard many voices from individuals who don’t have a national platform or anywhere near your level of privilege. I have heard voices of girls, who (data show) participate in equal numbers to boys in STEM through high school but who, after being gender-stereotyped and marginalized in their choices, since birth, doubt their self-worth and their potential for contribution to STEM in Canada. I collect these stories now and share them in the many talks I give. I’ve also heard from young gay men who want to forge careers in tech — but are wary of the “bro” culture. I’ve heard from young men of colour whose aspirations reach beyond more after-school basketball programs. And from first nations students, whose voices sometimes seem to be barely more than whispers — who have so much to contribute — but who are neither seen nor heard by so many of us in science. For the owners of these voices, who represent the future potential of Canada in many areas (beyond STEM), I am compelled to respond to your piece with an evidence-informed, data-driven opinion of my own. I hope this will be helpful to you and others.

You state that the diversity and equity initiatives launched by the government of Canada are “branding.” I suggest that this trivializes a major deeply-concerning issue that is being addressed actively by other countries. Many OECD and G20 countries, including Canada, now understand that ensuring diversity and equity (particularly in STEM-based careers) is an economic imperative. Many countries have recognized the economic value and importance of improving diversity and closing the gender gap to their economic futures, financial stability and competitive abilities. A highly skilled workforce, with advanced skills in STEM-based disciplines is essential if Canada is to remain competitive with the rest of the world. This means we must ensure as many members of Canadian society (women, first nations, and others) have access to STEM-based education and training. It means supporting young researchers and ensuring that the pool for hiring and promotion is cast as widely as possible and assessed with real transparency and fairness. It means industry, business, and academia working together to mobilize, support and retain as large and as diverse a STEM educational-workforce pipeline as possible, which includes the Canada Research Chair program. And by the way, women are not a diversity group, they are half the population of the world. It is a reasonable expectation that a system that is truly based on meritocracy should not disproportionately consist of white men any more than we would expect CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to be disproportionately tall. But they are. So there is something else going on. Bias, barriers, stereotypes. It’s real. We need to be honest and fix it.

Ensuring access to STEM means removing barriers and systemic bias, which is not “reverse discrimination.” It is removal of the discrimination that has been in place for decades, or perhaps centuries, that has ensured the privilege of a subset of the population (usually white, middle-aged, middle-class straight men). At one time these barriers were explicit (e.g. women could not vote) but now these barriers are less visible. However, they are still certainly present and they include implicit or unintentional bias, which has a solid evolutionary and neuroscientific basis, which is well presented by work of Dr. Uta Frith (see also this excellent video she commissioned for the Royal Society). Any sort of barrier that limits access and participation in STEM needs to be removed and we can legislate removal of barriers to full accessibility and inclusion (e.g. the AODA) or we can incentivize change through raised awareness and expectations, which will lead to the ultimate goal of cultural change. Incentive-linked programming has been adopted in the post-secondary education sector to improve diversity in other countries such as the UK, Australia and the US. Some of the worlds top universities have embraced diversity programming, improved their quality of research outputs and created rich, productive and highly successful cultures. By addressing equity and diversity through policy and process, they have fully embraced the concept of fairness and excellence. And they have become more successful. Research quality, quantity and impact has improved. Excellence and equity are mutually conducive and the sooner we all understand this, the more successful and competitive Canada will be on the world stage. In terms of its research, its productivity and its economic outputs. This is why equity, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) are core elements in the strategies presented in the Fundamental Science Review, which has been whole-heartedly endorsed by the scientific community. EDI is a key element in improving the CRC program.

The US educational activist Myra Sadker once said “If the cure for cancer is the mind of a girl, we might never find it.” How very true this still is. We must all listen to the voices of the outstanding and talented young women and young people from marginalized groups who love STEM and who are passionate about becoming Canadian leaders and researchers and scientists. Many of them are meritorious but will never achieve their full potential because of systemic bias. Therefore we must embrace evidence-based policy changes that address organizational, institutional, structural & systemic barriers to full EDI in STEM. We need leadership both federally and provincially. We need intentionality, accountability and consequences. We need the privileged to stop being blind to the barriers that exist and we need everyone to have the courage to say the establishment needs to change if Canada is to maintain standard of living and quality of life, for everyone, over the next 150 years. Equity and excellence are mutually conducive.

For more information on EDI in STEM check out my resources.