Early last year, Google released its diversity report, with the not-so-shocking revelation that only 30% of its employees are female. When you restrict to engineering positions (which excludes non-science jobs like sales and marketing), the numbers for women plummet further, down to a meager 17%. Other tech companies like Facebook and Twitter soon followed with their own diversity reports, revealing equally disappointing figures. In Canada, although no large companies have bravely offered to share their own numbers, some estimates suggest that only 25% of tech jobs in Canada are held by women.
But what about Canada’s universities? How do women fare in the vaunted professorship ranks of math and science departments at our most cherished public institutions? As it turns out, the numbers are even worse. Much worse.
The reasons to support diversity in Canada’s science departments are many, but perhaps the most practical is simply one of global competitiveness. It is no secret that math and science skills are becoming more important to a thriving economy, and while countries like India and China are churning out ever more science and engineering grads, the numbers in Canada are stagnating. We need all hands on deck, and that begins at our universities.
Among math, computer science (CS) and electrical/computer engineering (ECE) departments in Canada’s top universities, the percentage of women professors would seem humourously low if it didn’t make so clear that something is rotten in Canada’s elite institutions: McGill’s mathematics department has only two women among 40 professors, while Laval’s has only two out of 24. The University of Alberta can’t even reach 10% women in any of its math, CS or ECE faculties. As we dig deeper into the numbers, the story becomes only more troubling.
In his analysis of the tech world, Chris Gayomali from Fast Company writes that “it’s easy and funny to skewer Silicon Valley’s caricature as a white male patriarchy.” But it’s time we shine a light on the situation in our own elite universities.
We looked at the top 20 largest research universities in Canada (measured by number of graduate students), and for each focused our attention on the three faculties that correspond closely with the technology/STEM industry: mathematics, computer science, and electrical/computer engineering. We then calculated the percentage of full time “regular” faculty in each department that are women, by examining the university departments’ own websites. “Regular” faculty refers to tenure or tenure-track professors, but excludes what are generally teaching-only positions (like instructors). See the methodology section for precise details on our data.
Almost all CS and math departments in our study have women comprising fewer than a quarter of regular faculty. Only two universities — the University of Victoria and the University of Ottawa — exceed the 25% threshold. Among ECE departments, no faculty exceeds 20%, and all but one (Simon Fraser) are below the 15% threshold. What do these figures mean in practice? In many of our universities, a math, CS or engineering student would be lucky to encounter even a single woman professor at the front of the class in any given year — perhaps even over an entire academic career.
In the graphic above, we highlight the 25% and 10% thresholds in green and red not because 1 in 4 is admirable (it’s not) and 1 in 10 is poor (it is), but because these boundaries can start to frame the discussion in concrete terms, and can help to identify very reasonable parameters by which to evaluate our universities.
The Low Performers
Most would agree that a floor of 10% representation of women should be possible without much difficulty, even despite the so-called “pipeline problem” that may result in relatively fewer candidates. Yet so many of our universities fail to meet even this distressingly low bar. Carleton University in Ottawa stands out in this regard. Of the 29 regular faculty in its computer science department, there is only a single woman professor. In its Electrical and Computer Engineering departments, there are only 2 women out of 51 regular faculty. By any measure, these are stark and disturbing figures for Canada’s self-described “Capital University”.
The University of Alberta is another exceptionally shocking outlier in our dataset. It is the only one of our elite institutions to fall below the 10% threshold in all 3 of the departments that we investigated, with only 14 women employed among over 160 total regular faculty members across these departments.
Women cut a particularly lonely figure in Canada’s major ECE departments, where nearly half of the universities don’t exceed the 10% threshold. Standouts include Sherbrooke, Dalhousie, Laval, Memorial and Ottawa, each of whom employ just one or two women professors among a sea of male colleagues.
Among the few that publically acknowledge the challenges with their hiring practices is McGill University’s mathematics department. Walking the halls of Burnside Hall in Montreal, housing one of the great mathematics research facilities in our country, you’d encounter only two women among its 40 regular faculty members (a recent increase from just a single woman professor there). In a January 31, 2013 article in the McGill Daily, the math department’s chair Jacques Hurtubise was quoted as saying that the department is “working on” hiring more women, and that “we’re actually in the process of hiring a second woman right now.” That effort may have succeeded, but it’s no great achievement when your bar for success is so low.
The High Performers
Looking at the data, it is hard to point to any institution as a model for diverse hiring practices across all of its departments. However, the University of Ottawa and University of Victoria deserve recognition as outliers, containing the only departments in our sample that exceed 25% women: their departments of Computer Science have 45% and 35% women, respectively. However, lest we get too effusive with praise, we need only look to their their ECE departments, where UVic has only 10% women among regular faculty, while uOttawa has fewer than 6%. Perhaps they are not particularly positive outliers after all.
To those who spend time studying or teaching at Canada’s renowned science faculties, these findings may not be particularly surprising: there is a clear dearth of women among professorial ranks. But the scale of the problem is certainly quite staggering, with so many departments failing to reach even the most basic token threshold. There are likely many reasons for this imbalance, whether due to conscious or unconscious bias in hiring, a pipeline problem, cultural stereotypes, or any number of other posited causes. It’s time we take a closer look at Canada’s universities.
Departments generally list faculty members on their homepages. We determined gender based on name (when obvious), photo (if available on the department webpage), or outside research (teaching reviews written by students, etc.).
Not every university organizes its mathematics and computer departments according to the division we describe. In some cases, the CS and ECE departments are combined (in which case we report all numbers under CS); in other cases, math and statistics are combined (in which case we report all numbers under math). Finally, the University of Waterloo has several different mathematics departments; for this analysis, we focused on its Pure Mathematics Department.
What defines a full time “regular” professor? For the purposes of our analysis, we included only those professors classified as Professor, Assistant Professor or Associate Professor (and their French language equivalents in Quebec), which — generally speaking — cover tenure or tenure-track faculty that both teach and perform research. We excluded people employed primarily as teaching faculty (Instructors, Lecturers, Professors of Teaching), as well as Adjunct, Retired/Emeritus and Visiting Professors. We also generally tried to exclude professors who belong to a department “by courtesy” or are cross-appointed but belong primarily to a different department. Due to some irregular naming practices and incomplete data on departments’ own pages, we needed to make several judgment calls on whether to include or exclude certain people. Overall, the numbers should form a very accurate reflection of the composition of women among the senior ranks of Canadian STEM faculty.
Finally, we note that this data was collected in January of 2015. Departments may have gained or lost professors in the meantime, which may change the numbers.
Correction: In an earlier version, the University of Ottawa’s CS and ECE numbers were combined and presented as one in the CS chart, because uOttawa has a joint School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The university shared internal numbers with us which break down their professors by CS and ECE. The charts and article have been revised with the updated numbers.