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Leaky pipelines for Canadian women in research

Posted on behalf of Lesley Evans Ogden.

Council of Canadian Academies

They call it a leaky pipeline. But the leaks are women, not oil. A substantial number of young women enter into potential research careers but drop-off at various stages, says a report released this week by the Canadian Council of Academies analyzing the gender gap amongst Canada’s University researchers.

There are more than twice as many male than female researchers at Canadian research institutions, despite the fact that undergraduate enrollment achieved gender parity in 1989, and more than 50% of Canadian PhD students are now female.

The CCA panel sought to explain this attrition of women at ascending rungs of the faculty ladder. Low female numbers in the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) programme, and their absence from the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program, were key drivers in the commissioning of the report.

One challenge was the paucity of data for tracking career trajectories. Data is scarce at the postdoctoral stage and beyond, making this phase a particular mystery.

But there are clues.

Despite progress in institutional policies allowing career interruptions for child rearing, “there are still important difficulties that women researchers face more than men with respect to having a family”, says the University of Ottawa’s Michael Wolfson, a report co-author. The traditional pressures of institutional culture may trump policy in an increasingly competitive funding environment, explains Janet Halliwell, President of J.E. Halliwell Associates, one of the report’s external reviewers.

Male faculty father children in their late 20s and early 30s, while women faculty have fewer children, and postpone childbearing to later ages, “which we took to be a signal of the more difficult choice or trade-off that women faced with respect to balancing a research career,” says Wolfson. Some call it the “maternal wall”.

“The relatively low proportion of women at the full professor level suggests that the glass ceiling remains intact in Canada as well as in several comparator countries,” says the report.

Are things improving? Yes. The gap is closing, but not fast enough. If we take a wait and watch approach, parity is still decades away, explains Wolfson.

What can be done? The report makes many suggestions. We need better data on research career trajectories from granting councils and academic institutions. Second, we need a more family-friendly academic environment that is flexible with respect to part time work and interrupted careers.

With leaky pipelines, maternal walls, and glass ceilings to fix, the report is a call to action at all levels. Canada needs to “engineer” more women into research, and find mechanisms to collect the very data we need to both monitor and make it happen.

Read Nature‘s editorial on what we are doing to try and improve our coverage of the contributions of women to science.


  1. Report this comment

    Jenny Tough said:

    Great article. Seems ridiculous that the academic community should be found wanting for data! A matter of priorities perhaps.

    Flexible, accessible childcare would certainly support women. However, the fundamental culture in many fields finds women wanting when they opt to have children at the expense of a career which is held to be more of a calling than an occupation. It is acceptable for men to have children because it remains the assumption that their calling will continue to be their priority. Not so for women.

    Many industries are required to maintain and publish these data. Why not academia?

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