Farrell: CRC’s ranks need a diversity jolt

I read the article on the Canada Research Chair appointments in the recent alumni newsletter (“Six researchers named among nation’s elite,” Western News). I would like to congratulate the recipients on their success, but am compelled to express my concern over the striking lack of gender diversity in the lineup.

This was not surprising – just disappointing.

I did some research on the CRC website and found that the recent Western chair appointments accurately reflect the lack of diversity in the overall CRC program. Program statistics show that universities have recruited women for only 31 per cent of their available CRC positions, resulting in only 37 per cent of the total positions for Tier 2 chairs ($100,000/year for five years) being women, and a pathetic 17 per cent of total positions for Tier 1 chairs ($200,000/year for seven years) being women.

CRC clearly recognizes the issue within their prestigious award program. An entire page of their website is devoted to equity practices, however, the actions taken in the past to address the issue do not seem to be working, as the gender proportionality has not materially changed since at least 2011. It looks like Western and other universities are unable to meet the equity goals for recruiting chairs.

Gender bias has inserted itself into many aspects of academic life. For example, a recent study in The British Medical Journal showed underrepresentation of women as first authors on papers in six high-impact medical journals (37 per cent), a trend which has plateaued in recent years and even declined in some journals. First authorship on publications in high-impact journals is an important criteria for promotions and tenure, and likely also for awards, such as the CRC.

This mirrors very similar trends in my industry (biopharma) where gender diversity is also sorely lacking at the executive level. There is excellent research on both sectors identifying the causes and proposals for top-down and bottom-up solutions, but very little evidence anything will change.

The problem cannot be solved in a letter to the editor, but it is important to keep the issue in the public mind, especially for educational institutions like Western that are training future academic and industrial leaders. The diversity issue is not just about gender, but it is the aspect that I am most familiar with. Hopefully, future nominations will include some of your more diverse, yet stellar, candidates.

Catherine Farrell, PhD’89
Paradigm Shift Therapeutics
CEO and co-founder