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Changing hiring practices will allow diversity in the workforce

The Chronicle Herald by Tamara Franz-Odendaal 16 November 2017

If you have ever made a cake and tried to change the recipe, you know that every ingredient plays a key role in the outcome.

The Chief Science Adviser for Canada, Mona Nemer, in her keynote address at the North American Gender Summit 11 (held recently in Montreal), stated that if we keep using the same recipe in the same way when we select applicants for a job or promote them, then we will keep getting the same result.

Our science and tech workforce does not reflect the diversity of Canada’s population that we are so proud of. Not only that, but women, who account for half the population, are significantly under-represented in these fields.

Nemer was referring to the lens with which we view applicants when we do our hiring and promotion. CVs and reference letters are key in job applications. CVs list awards, projects worked on, invited talks, etc.

Research, however, shows that women are often not nominated for awards, and are often overlooked for key project assignments. Travelling to give an invited talk is not a family-friendly activity, so evaluating excellence on that basis also penalizes women.

Moreover, people with foreign names or non-traditional career paths face even more obstacles to getting hired. Reference letters are filled with adjectives that can over-inflate a person’s actual accomplishments and potential. Words such as accomplished, knowledgeable and innovative are often used to describe the accomplishments of men and contrast greatly to those used for women, such as collegial, considerate, and helpful.

This voice of a handful of letter writers is louder for male applicants than for female applicants. These two parts of the hiring process, CVs and reference letters, have an enormous impact on who gets hired. They both favour men.

Some men recognize the privilege they’ve enjoyed in their scientific careers, but most do not. They think that the playing field is level and don’t realize the system is set up for them to succeed.

Remarkably, the federal government currently has a female Minister of Science, a female Chief Science Adviser and a female Governor General. These leaders are sending a clear message to Canadian institutions and industries: diversity matters in the Canadian economy.

To enable Canada’s diverse workforce to fully participate in science and technology, we need to address the systemic barriers. Clearly articulated goals, accountability and transparency will help us to draw on the entire talent pool when we hire and promote individuals; this will have huge impacts on how we design products and experiments, and will lead to innovation.

Industry needs a diverse talent pool to draw upon and universities need to actively recruit these individuals into their programs, particularly in science and technology. Both have a social responsibility to ensure that they have an inclusive culture on campus and in the workplace.

We need to use new ingredients to make a different system that includes everyone. Having a policy on diversity is no good if there are not constant measures to check and re-check that inclusivity is actually being auctioned and achieved.

Tamara Franz-Odendaal is a professor of biology & NSERC Atlantic Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, Mount Saint Vincent University.