Gender, sexuality and women’s studies professor Bipasha Baruah has been named the new Strategic Focus Western Research Chair.
The chair recognizes Baruah’s innovative, interdisciplinary research at the intersections of gender, economy, environment and development; gender and work; and social, political and economic inequality.
Baruah joined Western in 2012 as the Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues.
Her current research aims to understand how to ensure a global, low-carbon economy will be more gender-equitable and socially just than its fossil-fuel based predecessor.
“There is much more attention being paid in research and policy circles to the technical and financial instruments that will enable us to transition out of fossil fuels than on social equity issues that must also be considered for a just transition to low-carbon economies” Baruah said.
Addressing the fact that women are already severely underrepresented in both fossil fuel and renewable energy employment, Baruah’s work stands out for focusing on employment and social policy to reduce gender inequality in the transition to sustainable energy.
“How can we build economic systems that recognize and work within the biophysical limits of our finite planet while simultaneously reducing poverty and inequality? If we don’t have appropriately targeted training, education, employment placement, financial tools, and supportive social policies and protections, the green economy may exacerbate existing social inequities and hinder global human development and poverty-alleviation goals.”
Over the past 10 years, Baruah’s work on women’s employment in renewable energy and resource efficiency has influenced policy within governments, financial institutions and non-governmental organizations. In 2015, she was elected as a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.
Leading societal change
Baruah’s appointment is part of the Western Research Chairs program, reinvigorated to create additional capacity for research, scholarship and creative activity, while also supporting innovation, leadership and collaboration.
The Strategic Focus Chair is one of five new chairs created to support work that will lead societal change, support Canada’s growth and advance fundamental research. An Advancing Research Chair, Innovation Chair, Leadership Chair and Visiting Fellow Chair are also part of the enhanced Western Research Chair initiative.
“We revitalized the program to support a broader group of scholars, researchers and creative activity across disciplines and career stages,” said Lesley Rigg, vice-president (research).
Designed to attract or retain leading scholars in key areas of research activity, the Strategic Focus chair must be an “outstanding and innovative world-class researcher whose accomplishments have made a major impact in their field.”
“Part of this perspective is to retain the immense talent here at Western,” Rigg said. “Bipasha represents our level of excellence in research and is doing work that is a great example of what the restructured program supports.”
And with a focus on sustainability and equity, Baruah’s expertise speaks to two of Western’s strategic institutional priorities: climate change and climate justice, and advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion.
“One of the key aspects attractive about Bipasha’s research is how it resides at the intersection of environmental and gender issues, and how they interconnect with a low carbon future,” Rigg said.
Changing nature of work
During her renewable five-year term, Baruah will continue studying other defining questions of our time, including the changing nature of work and the effects of degrowth (a scenario in which economies contract rather than grow over time) on gender equality. Related topics of interest include the effects of remote work, job-sharing, flexible schedules, and policies that alter the expectations of work.
“Ironically, COVID presented a real-life lab to look at these issues more closely,” Baruah said. “As a researcher studying diversity and inclusion, obviously I have to look beyond just the energy sector to how work itself is changing in the future.”
Baruah is also examining the future of work as it relates to disruptive technologies.
“Navigating disruptive technologies, such as automation, artificial intelligence and robotics, is a major challenge facing workers today,” she said. “I’m trying to understand how these disruptions will promote or obstruct gender equality. People of all genders will face challenges in navigating automation.”
Rigg said Baruah’s vast breadth of work brings together many areas of research activity on campus. “It’s what Western has been building towards for a long time,” she said.
Baruah feels “humbled and well supported” by Western’s investment in her work through the chair. Yet for her, the biggest reward lies in her passion for her work. “To be part of solutions to real-world problems motivates me more than anything else,” she said.