Draft charter aims to reduce barriers to equity, diversity and inclusion for researchers

Lindsay Borthwick
February 13, 2019

The federal government has unveiled an eagerly anticipated initiative to promote equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in Canada’s research community.

The Made-in-Canada Athena SWAN Charter, published in draft form on February 11, outlines nine core principles (pdf) to promote and support EDI at post-secondary institutions across Canada. A pilot project will launch later this spring, following a final round of consultations in February and March.

The draft charter is the latest move by the federal government to address the systemic barriers that confront many Canadians undertaking research careers, especially women, Indigenous people, racialized groups, persons with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ community. Recent data compiled by Universities Canada reveals that these groups are underrepresented at Canadian post-secondary institutions, particularly in senior positions.

Critical gaps need to be closed at every career stage, from hiring, to retention, promotion and tenure, as well as salaries and access to research funding. This fact was underscored by a major study published in the medical journal The Lancet last week, which suggested that gender bias is still pervasive in competitions for health research funding in Canada.

Moving from conversation to action

Post-secondary institutions will be encouraged to endorse the Made-in-Canada Athena SWAN charter once it is finalized; however, participation will be voluntary.

[rs_quote credit="Denise Amyot" source="President and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada"]It ensures that post-secondary institutions look at equity, diversity and inclusion in a comprehensive way, rather than just focusing on faculty recruitment or another part. That’s the beauty of the charter. It takes a holistic approach.[/rs_quote]

“Implementing the draft charter will tell prospective students, faculty and researchers that the school is committed to best practices, that it is a champion of EDI,” said Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, at an event marking the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. “Schools will commit to dismantling barriers that make it more difficult for underrepresented groups to succeed, from admissions to recruitment, career development, progression, retention to administration and rewards.”

“What excites me most about today’s announcement is that we’re finally moving from having conversations about EDI to taking concrete action,” said Shilpa Dogra, director of kinesiology in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY following the event.     

Duncan also announced $10 million in new funding over five years to help post-secondary institutions adopt and implement strategies that foster EDI. Applicants to the EDI Institutional Capacity-Building grants are eligible to receive up to $200,000 in funding per year, for up to two years.

In an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY, Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan), said the charter sets the expectation that EDI is integral to research and innovation: “It ensures that post-secondary institutions look at equity, diversity and inclusion in a comprehensive way, rather than just focusing on faculty recruitment or another part. That’s the beauty of the charter. It takes a holistic approach.”

Adapted for the Canadian context

Canada’s initiative is based on Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network), a pioneering program launched in the United Kingdom in 2005, which seeks to advance the representation of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The scope of the UK’s charter was expanded in 2015 to promote gender equality more broadly, including in the arts, humanities, social sciences, business, law and medicine. Universities and research institutes in the UK can voluntarily endorse the charter and apply for a bronze, silver or gold award, based on the actions they have taken to promote equality.

[rs_quote credit="Kirsty Duncan" source="Minister of Science and Sport"]We want everyone to feel included in our institutions, and we know broad diversity of perspectives, ideas, and experience breed great research that will have results that will benefit everyone.[/rs_quote]

An independent analysis of the program, conducted in 2014, found that Athena SWAN led to major gains for women in STEM fields, and was both effective at advancing women’s careers and at shifting institutional culture and attitudes.   

To date, 160 institutions in the UK have endorsed the charter, and other countries, including Australia and the United States, have launched home-grown programs. It was announced in Budget 2018 that Canada would also adapt Athena SWAN. The Made-in-Canada version is the result of a series of workshops and consultations with post-secondary institutions and the research community, spearheaded by Minister Duncan and the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) on behalf of the tri-agency.

Expanding inclusion and elevating intersectionality

There are several key differences between the Canadian charter and the UK version: First, the Canadian version will be open to all publicly funded post-secondary institutions, including universities, colleges, institutes, and polytechnics; second, it focuses on promoting EDI across the broad research community, not just in STEM fields (similar to the expanded version introduced in the UK in 2015); and, third, it aims to increase EDI for all four groups designated under the Employment Equity Act — women, Indigenous people, racialized groups, persons with disabilities — and LGBTQ.

The Canadian version gives centrality to the idea that people cannot be defined by a single social category, a point that Minister Duncan emphasized in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY. The Made-in-Canada Athena SWAN Charter “recognizes that we are not just one thing. There is intersectionality. We want everyone to feel included in our institutions, and we know broad diversity of perspectives, ideas and experience breed great research that will have results that will benefit everyone.”

Holly Witteman, a biomedical researcher at Laval Univ, who is also the lead author of The Lancet study, agreed. “One thing I particularly like [about the draft charter] is that it includes a variety of characteristics, not only gender, as was the case for the original Athena SWAN. I know there was discussion about this at the beginning and some people were advocating to start with gender and go from there, but I was one of a group of people who very emphatically encouraged a broader approach from the start. I am happy to see the charter followed that approach,” she said, in an email interview with RE$EARCH MONEY.

CICan’s Amylot and Witteman both highlighted that Canada’s research landscape is unique because of Indigenous people and their traditional knowledge, a fact that is acknowledged in the draft charter. “[The Truth and Reconciliation Commission] report included a number of Calls for Action that must be taken up by post-secondary institutions and the health care system…. I don’t know if the charter fully addresses the need for institutions to do the work laid out by the calls for action. I hope so, because it’s important for Canadian institutions to respond to the needs of Canadian society,” Witteman said in an email.

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