Female scientist working with a machine

Equity and Excellence: Yes, We Can Have Both

A recent Globe & Mail editorial decried "reverse discrimination"; the reality is, women in science still face barriers in getting to the top.


The June 10 issue of the Globe and Mail published a controversial opinion piece by Margaret Wente. She outlines the reasons she believes that hiring equity at universities, and specifically hiring more women into science professorships and nominating them as Canada Research Chairs, is at odds with excellence.

Wente calls the move by Canada’s Science Minister Kirsty Duncan to encourage gender parity via mandatory diversity plans and quotas “reverse discrimination.” But her logic is deeply flawed.

At the base of her argument is the assumption that the current system is unbiased and fair. She says this despite all the data that she admits point to highly skewed outcomes in favour of men.

But it’s important to remember that unequal outcomes do mean that the system itself is not equal. And if there aren’t as many female applicants as one would hope, then that discrimination and bias has already been at work long before the creation of a job posting.

In fact, when universities nominate their Canada Research Chairs, over twice as many men are selected as women. Of those women who are selected, most of them wind up in the second tier of the program. This is a chronic problem, despite equity targets being set a decade ago.

And yes, equity is different from equality. When a specific group of people, such as women or people of colour, are systematically underrepresented, equity advocates action that would make those demographics better reflect the general population.

Imogen Coe, Dean of the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University, wrote an excellent response to Wente’s article, which you should all read. In it, she dismantles Wente’s idea of “reverse discrimination.” Eliminating the barriers and bias that holds back a group of people who represent half the human population is the removal of long-held discrimination and disparity, not a new discrimination of a privileged group.

Perhaps the most insidious part of Wente’s article is that on the surface, it sounds like thoughts that many people have, which makes it easy for people to nod and agree without thinking it through.

Women are often the first to say that they want to be hired based on merit alone, and not hired over another more qualified candidate because of a quota. That mentality feels very familiar, but it’s superficial. Female enrollment in science and engineering degrees is up, even dominating in science and medicine, while tenured positions continue to lag. And it would be impossible to credibly argue that there simply aren’t enough high achieving female scientists to fill a small number of elite roles.

Given the right opportunities, a woman will thrive just as much as anybody else. It is incredibly damaging and irresponsible to use a prominent national platform to say that equity and excellence are mutually exclusive, to imply that women cannot be equally excellent researchers.

And yes, the ultimate goal would be to do away with quotas forever, because they are no longer needed. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not useful now, when dealing with an imperfect system. Leaving a flawed system to organically work itself out is not a plan. Foresight and action are needed to create an environment and culture that welcomes gender parity. When women are underrepresented in positions of power and prestige, we lack female role models and put up invisible walls that imply a biased view of what success should look like.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.