The other evening I was invited to the home of a retired colleague to talk about equity. The idea was to discuss some of the unsettling trends in the Stephen Harper administration and in our own university and come up with a plan for revitalizing feminist struggles.
We failed. Oh, we had plenty to say about Ottawa, and our universities, and our funding structures, and even our colleagues, but when it came right down to the gnarly question of what we mean by equity – well, when it came down to that, we failed. We could not say what we want.
These last few days, I have been pondering why. I will speak for myself, but perhaps what I say here will resonate with you too.
Partly, I find it hard to say what I want in the name of equity because I want so very many things for the profession. Some of them are directly connected to equity, some are loosely associated, and some are entirely distinct. Among the things I want: cheaper tuition; smaller class sizes; a clear job description; the return of my colleagues’ telephones; a reinvention of the conference format; more generous and less aggravating support for research; a broader understanding of university-community relationships; recognition of graduate supervision as part of our workload; academic jobs for grad students who want them; time to think; and a Jil Sander suit.
It’s also hard to say what I want because I have been trained in a metacritical / hypercritical tradition that means as soon as something is out of my mouth I can see its pitiable inadequacies. Nothing is ever good enough, and when ‘smart’ is measured by idealist perfection or theoretical rigor rather than the pragmatic dirty compromise of actually existing postlapsarianism – well, then, it’s tough to get the ideas out.
But even though it’s hard, and risky, and guaranteed to be inadequate, I’m going to take a crack at saying what I’d like in the name of equity.
First, I support the Employment Equity Act that governs private sector employers, crown corporations, federal contractors and the public service in Canada. There are other ways to arrive at equality, and the federal contractors’ legislation may not be perfect, but since C21 conservativism’s modus operandi, here and elsewhere, often takes the form of dismantling legislation and institutions, I would like to see us stand behind the State on this one.
I would like the professoriate to resemble the demographics of the country in all four protected categories: gender, visible minorities, Aboriginality, and disability. I thought of keying the demographics to our city or our province but both seem volatile enough that I prefer what I take to be the stabilizing influence of the nation as an analytical category. If 4% of Canada is Aboriginal (wikipedia), then 4% of our university should be Aboriginal. Yup, that’s right: I’m proposing quotas. I’ve never been persuaded by the arguments against American-style affirmative action. (Q: What’s worse than getting a job because you’re black? A: Not getting one.)
One important equity goal would be to see these numbers reflected across the ranks, from undergraduate student to full professor. So maybe until we get it right – about 58% of undergraduates are women but only 18-38% of full professors are women, depending on your discipline, so we have a ways to go – maybe we should build in a buffer: plus two or three percentage points per category, for instance. Anyone out there numerate enough to run the figures?
There has to be a time limit with hard targets along the way. Given how long it takes for an undergraduate to become a full professor, I figure we won’t really arrive until 2025 or so: we need to train the best and brightest, and the system requires flexibility. Equity is a long road. Still, every five years, Canada should be about 30% along. If we’re not, we take pan-institutional corrective measures. If by 2025 our equity results are as dismal as they are right now, we strike.
So here, in a nutshell, is my equity demand: I want the professoriate to match Canadian demographics by 2025.
There are other things I would like. I would like equity categories to be more broadly understood, as well, so that gender is not just men and women, and “visible difference” (visible to whom?) can differentiate between moneyed immigrants and structurally disadvantaged communities. I wish we had a good way to incorporate social class into these categories. (Interestingly, queer representation doesn’t particularly trouble me, though I may be naive about that.) I suspect disability will remain the most difficult for us to wrap our minds around, even though many more academics than you might imagine struggle with invisible disabilities like chronic mental illnesses. On the other hand, how many deaf professors do you know?
So, yes, I would like subtler categories – but I am afraid that at this point I lose the clarity of a simple ask, and so I am willing to work with the categories we have for the time being. I’m pretty flat-footed that way.
Am I prepared to adapt to the changed structures and practices and tenets of our academy in order to help bring about more equitable demographics? I think so. But we would be foolish to think we could foresee all of the changes equity would entail – or to imagine we would necessarily like them. Many English departments are shockingly white, for instance, perhaps even aggressively white, and I’m not sure we would recognize “literature” if we hired more than token minorities. Similarly, it’s easy to say that having more women would strengthen arguments for recognizing and rewarding what I’ve been calling in this blog “emotional labour” – but maybe that’s a middle-class desideratum that would not survive equitable demographics. Do we really want mentoring written into our job descriptions? Maybe…. All I’m saying here is that if we go down the road of changing our institutions, we can’t presume we’ll like each and every alteration.
But I’m certainly willing to find out.
Enough from me. What do you think our institutional equity goals should be?