Laval University Canada Research Chair biology job posting quebec white men boys club

White men are doing just fine

Outrage over a Laval University job posting that excludes white men exposes the continued dominance of the (white) boys club, even as they push the narrative that they’re the ones being discriminated against.

Quebec politicians and pundits recently criticized Laval University for a job posting for a Canada Research Chair in biology that excludes white men. In its call for applications and in efforts to tackle the underrepresentation of minorities in academic and research grant recipients, only women, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and visible minorities would be considered. The posting caused an uproar in certain circles and was referred to as discriminatory and a blatant “attack on white men” – primarily, it should be noted, by a bunch of other white men. 

In Quebec, as elsewhere, there’s a real denial of structural dynamics that favour certain groups and disadvantage others. Given that our own government denies the existence of systemic discrimination, it’s hardly surprising, but as research continues to point to a greater need for more representation from those who’ve been absent from the decision-making table, expect to hear even more loudly from those who took up most of the seats as the dynamics start to shift.

Gender parity quotas

The heated reactions mimic the conversations that take place when the imposition of gender quotas is often introduced by countries, temporarily or permanently, at the national, regional or local levels, as a way of redressing gender inequity in political representation. 

Despite being a majority, Canadian women still represent only 30% of elected politicians in the House of Commons. In the U.S., white men represent 30% of the population but 62% of officeholders. Canada is a lacklustre 24th on the Global Gender Gap Index and researchers say at the current rate of progress, it would take another 100 years to reach parity. The only professions in which women are routinely overrepresented are healthcare and teaching — sectors traditionally underfunded and mistreated by governments — while business and politics are still very much a boys’ club. Despite years of pay equity legislation, Quebec women still earn less than their male counterparts. 

Those opposed to forced quotas or affirmative action remain firmly in two camps: those who think it translates to tokenism and pandering to a specific minority group and those who like the status quo as it is because it benefits them. It’s not coincidental that 99.9% of those furiously writing columns or featured on panels shocked by this “discrimination” are white men, just as it isn’t accidental most “expert” panels are routinely comprised of white men, regardless of whether the topic is mask mandates or “Is racial profiling a real thing?” Jordan Peterson, who thinks “the masculine spirit is under assault” and “chaos is represented by the feminine” ominously refers to it as the “dangerous doctrine of equity.” People like him mirror the status quo they reinforce and represent. 

Of course, if asked, most people would say they believe in and support equality for all. What they don’t appreciate, they insist, is the notion of legislating equality or imposing hiring quotas because that, they claim, is just another form of discrimination. Those arguing against quotas say they go against the principle of equal opportunity for all. There’s only one tiny problem. There has never ever been such a thing as equal opportunity for all. A 2012 situation test carried out by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that corporate recruiters given identical CVs except for the applicants’ name were 72% more likely to respond to “white” names (English- and French-speaking Quebecers) over those that sounded African, Arabic or Hispanic. According to the 2016 Statistics Canada census, “the unemployment rate among visible minorities in Montreal, was double — even triple, depending on the group — that of non-visible minorities.” The situation persisted across all levels of education. 

Minority underrepresentation persists 

In 2020, a report released by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that in 2019, 6.3% of public sector employees in the province were visible minorities, though they make up 13% of the population. The report found “the public sector would need to hire 26,307 people from visible minorities just to reach a target of 10.4% representation.” Only 42 of the SQ’s 5,500 employees are visible minorities. Only 122 of the SAQ’s 7,500 employees are visible minorities — or 1.6%. The representation of Indigenous people in the public sector was 0.3% in 2019 and hadn’t moved in a decade. In 2018, reports showed that of Montreal’s 2,000 firefighters, just 24 were visible minorities and 97% were white men. Only 9% of the Montreal police force identify as a visible minority, while 33% of the city’s population belongs to one.

When a white professor used the n-word at the University of Ottawa and consequently faced backlash, politicians, pundits and journalists came to the professor’s defence. Media published an open letter from professors in support of their colleague. But one important detail was missing: the letter, signed by 579 Quebec professors supporting academic freedom, included 0.5% Black professors. These unequal dynamics, which include the underrepresentation of minority voices in academia, matter and shape curriculum, consensus, university research and, ultimately, public opinion. 

Equity is different from equality 

When equity tactics are selectively employed by universities, it’s because there’s a very real and well-documented lack of diversity in these institutions. Understanding the fundamental differences between equity and equality is, therefore, important. Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. A “one-size-fits-all” approach, if you will. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

“Social systems aren’t naturally inequitable — they’ve been intentionally designed to reward specific demographics for so long that the system’s outcomes may appear unintentional but are actually rooted in discriminatory practices and beliefs,” says educator Paula Dressel.  

Affirmative action is therefore the opposite of discrimination. It’s about ensuring equity, diversity and better representation, which, in turn, results in improved decision-making benefitting everyone. But if you’re part of the group that’s always had a seat at the table, you don’t tend to notice (or often care) about those missing from it.

The goal of the Canada Research Chairs program is to increase the representation of diverse researchers among its faculty to improve the quality and relevance of its research. A 2019 Federal Court order stipulates that research appointments represent the Canadian population by 2029. If we know that women and certain cultural minorities are chronically under-represented as teachers or in obtaining grants, and professors holding prestigious research roles at Canadian universities are still overwhelmingly white and male — despite diversity and inclusion initiatives — then Laval University did what it needed to do in keeping with its own recruitment policies and the Canada Research Chairs program requirements.

Equality doesn’t just happen naturally

When it comes to fighting a well-established status quo it’s wishful thinking to expect inclusion will effortlessly and magically just happen. Sometimes doors that won’t open need to be forced open. 

If equality occurred without rocking the boat, women would have naturally been given the right to vote without suffragettes fighting tooth and nail for political representation. Segregation laws would have naturally been eliminated without the Civil Rights movement. Claiming minority underrepresentation in academia, politics, business circles and high-paying jobs just naturally occurs or is the result of individual choices and inclinations, rather than very real and well-entrenched systemic barriers, is like claiming Quebec francophones were just naturally inclined to prefer low-paying factory jobs in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The large wage gap between English-speaking and French-speaking Quebecers only disappeared once structural barriers preventing them from accessing high-paying jobs were removed. 

Are we to believe that it’s mere coincidence that Quebec’s political class (and most of the world’s, really), judicial system, corporate boards, academic institutions and high-paying jobs in media continue to be dominated by white men, or can we finally concede that multiple and far-reaching systemic barriers still exist and need to be gradually removed for equal access to all? 

And, if so, maybe those who’ve had a head start for more than a few centuries in a competition that’s still very much rigged in their favour might perhaps concede that occasionally the balance of power might tilt in someone else’s favour for once. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.