Research | Queen’s University Canada

Gender Parity in Research means Fixing a “Leaky Pipeline”

Gender Parity in Research means Fixing a “Leaky Pipeline”

[Heather Jamieson]
Dr. Heather Jamieson samples soil near the Giant Mine in Yellowknife

Growing up in what she describes as a “smelter town” in northwestern Quebec, Heather Jamieson developed an early interest in the environmental impact of mining. Her father had spent his career working as a mine manager, later turning his attention to working to remediate the mine tailings. But arriving at Queen’s in 1976 to pursue graduate studies in the Department of Geology (now known as the Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering), Dr. Jamieson quickly realized that her gender made her a distinct minority. By the time she earned her PhD in 1982 (only the fourth woman in her discipline to do so at Queen’s), she was well aware of the barriers keeping women from doing research in the field of geology, even initially staying away from early courses in environmental geology because it was presented as a softer science, or as “something for the girls.” 

“That was anathema for me,” says Jamieson, now a professor in the department where she was a student, as well as in the School of Environmental Studies, acknowledging the sexism that was commonplace. “I remember a professor once saying that it was a well-known fact that women couldn’t think in three dimensions, so they couldn’t do structural geology,” she laughs.

While there are notable female researchers appearing between 1841 to the mid-twentieth century, female students were still in the minority at Queen’s throughout the 1960s. They now outnumber males at the undergraduate level and are reaching parity at the graduate level. But as you move up the ranks, those numbers dwindle, with far fewer women than men in tenured and tenure-track positions (growing from 28.5% in 2000 to 33.7% in 2015) where research effort is most focused. The paucity of women in academic roles continues to be a national issue. The 2012 Council of Canadian Academies report on “Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension,” indicates that from 2008-2009, women made up just 21.7% of full professors and 36.2% of associate professors.

[Chemical engineering student in lab]
A chemical engineering student from 1970. Queen’s University Archives

“Women are in the pipeline, but the pipeline is leaky,” says Irène Bujara, Director of the Human Rights and Equity Offices at Queen’s, on the issue of attracting and retaining women at higher levels within the university, which includes making sure they access Canada Research Chair positions, teaching awards and other recognition in representative numbers.

Queen’s did, however, make significant and successful efforts to attract female researchers to campus through the 1980s, including through such programs as the Queen’s National Scholar Program. Dr. Christine Overall, now a Professor Emerita in the Department of Philosophy, was one of a number of young academics who first landed positions under the Queen’s National Scholar program, which was then particularly focused on recruiting women. Overall was the first woman to join the Department of Philosophy in a tenure-track appointment, and the first to earn tenure and promotion to full professor within it.

Although she was well supported by members of her department, Overall remembers facing challenges within the discipline of philosophy because of her research on procreative ethics, a new and feminist-focused area of study within philosophy, in which she was an early voice. “For some people it was very startling,” she says. “At conferences, there would sometimes be questions about whether my work could really be philosophy.” Sometimes, others dismissed her work as “armchair sociology.”

At the same time, she remembers feeling energized by the nascent Department of Women’s Studies, which had started to take shape at Queen’s in the mid-1980s, built on contributions from female faculty members across the university.

[Christine Overall at her desk]
Dr. Christine Overall in her office, 1985

“Creating courses in Women’s Studies was a good experience that brought women faculty together to talk about issues related to women and feminism,” she says. The Association of Women Teaching at Queen’s (AWTAQ) was also critical through the 1980s and 1990s, providing female academics and senior staff members with opportunities to gather and discuss wage gaps, discrimination, research funding and other issues they were facing on campus.

While women continue to make strides in research at Queen’s, many acknowledge that there is still work to be done. The university’s Academic Plan, released in 2011, notes the inequalities that affect the academic success of female faculty, from their underrepresentation in the upper ranks of academia to the very fact that the “dominant university culture continues to be male defined.” Queen’s has also been employing strategies to recruit faculty from other equity-seeking groups through their revised 2013 Employment Equity Framework.

For Bujara, achieving gender balance in research means tapping into the entire pool of available talent – not just a portion of it. “Women may look at things differently based on their different experiences,” she says simply.

The more diversity you have in your pool of researchers, the greater the diversity of inquiry that can happen.

And while Jamieson, whose research is now focused on the environmental impact of mining despite her early avoidance of the subject, says that while gender used to be on her mind all the time in her current position, she admits it’s starting to feel a little less pressing. She explains that while she didn’t have any female graduate students a few years ago, she now has so many she barely bothers to remark on it. “We’re at the stage where what was a constant issue is less of one now,” she says. “Not all the barriers have disappeared, but they certainly have come down a little.”