• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling in Canadian Higher Ed

In Canada, women represent only 21.8% of full professors while constituting 36% of associate professors, 43% of assistant professors, and 60% of university student populations.

September 13, 2016

In Canada, women represent only 21.8% of full professors while constituting 36% of associate professors, 43% of assistant professors, and 60% of university student populations. In contrast, men represent 78% of full professors, although comprising 40% of student enrollment. Because of their gender alone, women continue to face systemic barriers in academe. Existing literature indicates that the following institutional factors: glass ceiling, an androcentric academic culture, and a penalty for motherhood are at the epicenter of this issue.

Women are less likely to be promoted to full professorship than men. Not only that, they encounter more systemic barriers than their male peers. Climbing up the professorial ladder is demanding for all, but requiries more from women than from men. Even when outperforming men, women’s work is not always appropriately recognized by university reward systems. Although universities across Canada have developed employment equity policies, the workplace culture remains resistant to gender equity. As a result, women tend to stagnate in the low and middle faculty ranks as course instructors, assistant and associate professors. Whereas men predominate in the ranks of full professorship, implying that the Canadian professoriate is plagued by a chronic vertical bias.

In regard to the gender imbalance in academia generally, feminist scholars argue that academia like other societal institutions is governed by paternalist values. Patriarchal practices still affect the reward systems of tenure and promotion; women are confronted every day by systemic discrimination due to gender bias. Their organizational citizenship and career advancement are inhibited by an androcentric culture that gives less recognition to their scholarly contributions. For example, it is pointed out in existing studies that they are less likely to be recommended (Abramson et., 2016; Caplan, 2015; Gentry & Stokes, 2015) for full professorship than male faculty. Even when male and female associate professors present identical research, teaching and service inputs, university tenure committees are inclined more favorably towards male candidates than female ones. Furthermore, the institutional culture of academe has penalized motherhood. It is difficult for female faculty with children to apply for full professorship. Academic life, promotion processes and expectations are incompatible with motherhood. Because of that, women with children confront many personal dilemmas as they try to navigate the promotion processes without impinging on their role as mothers. As argued by Goulden, Wolfinger and Masson (2013), a majority of female faculty think that academic life is incompatible with family life. Subsequently, only few women apply for full professorship, which in turn engenders a pipeline line problem resulting in their under-representation in full professor ranks. While it can be argued that women without children may have better prospects than those raising children, existing studies indicate that irrespective of their family status, women are still less likely to be promoted because of their gender and as a result, their economic gains are less than for their male peers.

The under-representation of women in full professorship in Canada is comparable to the UK (20% of full professors are female). Whereas in comparison to Norway (25% of full professors are women) and the US (24%), it is somewhat worse. Based on aforementioned percentages, it is logical to conclude that the issue of gender disparities in academia are not only specific to Canada. This problem is also embedded in the academic habitus of other OECD countries.

Organizational change recommendations

Taking into account the aforementioned factors, Canadian universities need to foster a workplace culture with a reward structure that is entirely gender neutral. The current androcentric culture of academe needs to be dismantled with careful attention to effective organizational policies and practices. Principles of gender equity must be practically and systemically put at the epicenter of promotion processes and expectations. Members of university evaluation committees, department chairs and all faculty members should be trained in best gender equity evaluation practices. Greater accountability must be demanded from academic administrators and performance evaluators who may discriminate against female faculty. 

Better mechanisms for recognizing the value of contributions by female faculty are crucial to changing the culture. They should be recognized and promoted in the same way that male faculty are. Furthermore, effective policies regarding family responsibilities for women (and men) need to be developed to lessen the tension between academic life and family life. Policies should be implemented to the extent that they can facilitate female assistant and associate professors to achieve full professorship and that may imply changes to the traditional timetable to achieve tenure.  Motherhood must not be treated as a liability.  Overall, university administrations in concert with faculty associations should consider engaging in further studies to address the following factors: the problem of the “glass ceiling”, an androcentric academic culture, and penalties for motherhood.


Saturnin Ndandala is PhD candidate at McGill University




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