You are now in the main content area

Discussion Highlights

If there was one overriding theme during the roundtable discussions, it is that despite all the work done in recent years to embed EDI values in Canada’s research culture, major barriers endure. Why haven’t EDI initiatives had more impact? Many roundtable participants spoke to the resistance these initiatives continue to face. The various forms of unconscious or implicit bias serve as one obstacle to change1, as does the tendency to cling to established assessment methods, such that predominant norms that perpetuate a “gender blindness” and “colour blindness” (among others) are presented and perceived as neutral and objective, despite having a bias against forms of research that do not fit with Westernized notions of research excellence.

Research is strongest when all people–of all identities–are contributing equitably to the research ecosystem.

Anne Webb, Plenary speaker

Plenary speaker Serge Villemure gave a pertinent example. After 20 years of promoting women in the natural sciences and engineering, their representation in these fields has hardly changed. Besides the unconscious biases that intrude on assessment processes, Villemure highlighted biased or incomplete indicators of excellence when evaluating women and underrepresented candidates generally, especially given their disproportionate service roles; prevailing assumptions that equate a “linear” career path as that taken by academics who stay steadfastly within the academic system, and assumptions that this is most desirable; and the fact that women are often steered away from the natural sciences and engineering by gendered and discriminatory language and microaggressions.

1These unconscious biases include normative bias, performance bias, confirmation bias, performance attribution bias, personal filters related to the competence/likeability trade-off, and the maternal bias and debasement filter. 

The traditional means of dealing with equity barriers is through training decision-makers involved in project evaluation and selection. Roundtable participants pointed out potential problems with such training, not least because it may have limited impact in the face of firmly held beliefs and assumptions. Some also mentioned the harmful effects of “training fatigue”.

How can EDI training be made more effective? Participants pointed to the need for multiple approaches and methodologies. One possible enhancement is to reframe training as an integral part of professional development rather than as an optional accompaniment to particular roles and functions. It would also help if training were mandatory for all faculty as well as for funding agencies’ program officers. The content of the training itself needs to be expanded as well. Several participants stressed the need to incorporate analysis of systemic issues, power, anti-racism and anti-oppression as essential parts of training content.

EDI training may be seen as the answer but it is not always the solution.

Denise O’Neil Green, Plenary speaker

Accountability in infusing EDI-informed values, practices and analyses in research depends on demonstrating, in clear and verifiable ways, the achievement of EDI-related goals. These include the increased participation and success of members of underrepresented groups in funding competitions; increased inclusion of EDI considerations in research proposals; and a growing diversity of membership on selection and governance committees. What are the respective roles for funding agencies and universities to ensure these forms of accountability? Agencies must set benchmarks that lend themselves to the public reporting of results and which the agencies themselves feel they can attain. For their own part, universities must craft strategies to meet these benchmarks and engage in the timely reporting of results.

As a practical matter, accountability is closely associated with organizational structure. This is especially true for universities given their organizational complexity, the level of decentralization that tends to mark their operations, and the range of internal decision makers who have a role to ensure that institutional commitments are met. Roundtable participants were clear in their view that there is a crucial role for equity offices in ensuring accountability in university settings. As one participant put it, “these offices should have the power, accountability and resources to move the equity agenda forward.” One way to accomplish this is by mandating that equity offices gain a portion of the grants received by researchers to support equity initiatives related to the research ecosystem at universities. More generally, equity offices must be involved in every aspect of research decision making, and the offices’ leadership needs to report directly to the university’s president or provost. 

It was repeatedly stressed that university leaders have a significant part to play in the infusion of EDI in the fabric of their institutions. To make this happen, university leaders require customized EDI training that covers not just overall principles, but best practices around compliance. After all, more than anyone else, it is university leaders who hold internal stakeholders to account for embedding EDI principles, analyses and practices. They are also crucial in ensuring that an inclusive environment permeates the entire organization.

University leaders, in tandem with their funding agency counterparts, must also navigate the inevitable systemic tensions that exist as agencies and universities pursue their sometimes divergent agendas. Roundtable participants were unanimous in maintaining that such tensions should not be ignored or swept under the table. As a natural part of the EDI-infusion process, they must be actively overcome through dialogue, strategies and collaboration. 

Issues relating to data collection and the quality of data collected were repeatedly stressed as a roadblock in embedding EDI values, analyses and practices across the research sector. Common challenges include self-identification surveys with low response rates; resistance from some segments of the research community to participate in these surveys, which could lead to inaccurate results; limitations in the way data is configured, which mask equity-related gaps rather than reveal them; and, finally, resistance to sharing equity data between units that collect the data and those that need to report it (i.e. research offices).

Numerous roundtable participants argued for more guidelines and standardization in data gathering. Many also suggested that the funding agencies are in the best position to collect and store data, as well as to incentivize researchers to submit such information. If the funding agencies do take on this data collection role, they will have to specify exactly what information they need and ensure that it is used consistently while respecting the Privacy Act, with each university’s data being shared with that institution to streamline all aspects of decision making around research funding. For data that continues to be collected by universities, roundtable participants suggested making more effective use of departmentally based champions. The example cited by one participant is instructive. Their university responded in a creative way to the challenge of increasing faculty participation in a self-ID survey. The solution was to promote active outreach by specially chosen advocates across the campus. These advocates encouraged departmental peers to submit.

All too often EDI-informed analyses and practices are marginalized in the assessment and funding of research. How can this marginalization best be addressed? Roundtable participants pointed to the need to redefine research excellence to harness the benefits of diversity. This means acknowledging how scholarly work is enriched by a plurality of perspectives, practices and ways of knowing. As one participant put it, EDI needs to be a demonstrated qualification for researchers, not just a value. That will happen only if the models currently used to evaluate research are expanded beyond established evaluation metrics, with their focus on standardized quantitative criteria, to include the full spectrum of knowledge and scholarly creation, with an explicit recognition of diverse worldviews, experiences, methods of enquiry, competencies and contributions to research systems and contexts. EDI considerations need to be embedded in the research environment, in the composition of research teams, in the questions raised, in the methods chosen and in the types of analyses that are undertaken. All this is necessary to enhance the rigour, relevance and innovation of research.

Some roundtable participants mentioned the importance of recasting assessment rubrics to make EDI part of the rubrics’ explicit criteria. There was also a discussion of the interview process, with several participants calling for mandatory questions to help gauge candidates’ opinions and attitudes towards EDI. This would include the way candidates conduct research and their plans to provide professional opportunities for members of underrepresented groups. The makeup of juries and assessment committees received attention as well. Participants pointed to the need to demonstrate these bodies are assembled with equity and diversity in mind, that EDI considerations are taken into account in choosing the preferred candidate, and to recognize the benefits and strengths of diverse, inclusive juries, selection committees and assessment processes. Participants also noted the need to train selection committees to prioritize, employ and value EDI-related metrics. 

During the course of the roundtable proceedings, it became clear that calls for shared responsibility in developing EDI frameworks are being taken seriously. For example, plenary speaker Anne Webb elucidated how Canada’s main federal funding agencies are currently combining their efforts to embed EDI considerations and analysis into their policies, programs and procedures, with each agency developing an EDI action plan, while a range of EDI-related initiatives are being implemented and monitored.2

There are signs that these initiatives are having an effect, as evidenced by increases in rates of participation and success in some funding competitions by members of underrepresented groups (to the degree that data exists) as well as a greater inclusion of equity and diversity considerations in some research proposals. At the same time, efforts are being made to ensure selection and governance committees become more diverse. Developing a more comprehensive understanding of research excellence is among the initiatives in the agencies’ plans. There has also been greater recognition of institutions making progress in EDI through awards and other forms of acknowledgement. But as was reiterated by participants at several points in the roundtable, these initiatives are only a start. Far more has to be done in order to effect durable and long-lasting change. 

2These initiatives include collecting, analyzing and reporting data on under-represented group participation in funding competitions; monitoring and implementing measures to increase equity and diversity within the pool of applicants and recipients; building awareness, understanding and the integration of EDI analysis and practices throughout stakeholder communities and institutions, and in how the agencies themselves work; embedding EDI considerations so that they are recognized as among factors indicative of research excellence; developing EDI resources, including bias awareness training, tailored to each agency’s community of stakeholders; taking steps to eliminate the impact of periods of leave taken and research pace on researcher assessments; reviewing ‘use of funds’ regulations to clarify that research costs related to increasing EDI are eligible; and consulting with expert EDI advisors. 

Recent innovations by the Canada Research Chair Program (CRCP) are providing a set of practical precedents that could become, with time, a sector standard. As outlined in the roundtable proceedings, the CRCP’s EDI action plan is distinguished by its comprehensiveness. It includes explicit EDI and public accountability and transparency requirements for institutions who participate in the CRC Program. It also incorporates a built-in compliance mechanism to ensure that this requirement is being met in a timely fashion and that institutions are held accountable by publicly reporting progress towards meeting EDI objectives. The CRCP-mandated institutional action plans are expected to integrate EDI in all aspects of the recruitment, nomination, retention and renewal of CRC chairholders, along with an explicit acknowledgement that intentional action is needed to remove systemic barriers and promote diverse hiring. The EDI action plan includes builtin compliance mechanisms, such as requiring that institutions meet their equity and diversity targets by December 2019 or the program will not accept new nominations unless they contribute to meeting the targets. Likewise, if an institution does not meet other requirements in the EDI action plan by the deadlines stipulated, nominations will not be accepted unless they contribute to diversification of chairholders.

The CRCP initiative is an important step. Numerous participants pointed out that its provisions are creating a broader understanding of research excellence. The initiative is also providing the ability to recognize and value excellence in different forms. Because of the compliance mechanisms infused in the CRCP’s action plan, institutions have an incentive to build on what the CRCP has started. This means developing the institutional infrastructure required to apply the EDI lens. Such an infrastructure can apply not just to CRC appointments but to research positions more generally. In fact, many institutions are actively leveraging the CRC’s EDI action plan to broader institution-wide initiatives.

As pathbreaking as the CRCP’s framework is, this initiative elicited some criticism during the roundtable proceedings. For example, it was pointed out that many universities have extended their designated groups beyond the CRCP’s four – most particularly 2SLGBTQ+ people. This creates potential gaps in the CRCP framework’s reach. With different survey methodologies being utilized by various institutions for their CRC appointments, it is difficult to produce system-wide quantitative results, though it was pointed out that the CRCP alone cannot generate this data.

It was also mentioned that, based on a growing body of evidence indicating that EDI is critical to excellence in research, the CRCP could implement further measures to ensure a comprehensive definition of research excellence is used. Assessment of the quality of CRCs and their contribution to the research output of institutions continues to be based primarily on bibliometric analysis. The program has required that peer review committee members take an online module on the impact of unconscious bias on peer review. This includes a section on the bias of traditional metrics of excellence. However, because these biases and attitudes are deeply embedded in research culture, it is paramount that more actions are taken to address barriers and to ensure that the work of scholars from underrepresented groups is fully recognized and valued.

Furthermore, the CRCP sets equity targets based on proxies for the faculty representation of the four designated groups, as defined by the Employment Equity Act (women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples and members of visible minorities). Because the Employment Equity Act focuses on current representation among university faculty, compliance does not necessarily encourage institutions to address the underlying systemic issues that limit opportunities for people from these groups and perpetuate their underrepresentation in university faculty. 

Still, progress is occurring. As universities pursue their own EDI-focused practices in the various areas of research, and align them with funding agency frameworks, best practices are being developed that can be utilized widely across the sector. As an example, the CRCP has produced a best practices document (external link)  to support institutions as they address their equity challenges. The CRCP’s suggestions are framed as voluntary rather than mandatory, but there is little doubt that the proactive strategies and practices that are emerging will have a system-wide effect as different institutions further refine their EDI-enabling practices.3

Universities will also be a source of best practices themselves. Several participants pointed out the need for more explicit collaboration on EDI goals across the university sector. One suggestion, for example, was for the creation of a Canadian network of university equity officers to ensure a more consistent peer-to-peer sharing of information and best practices.

3The CRCP’s best practices document includes recommendations on identifying ways to provide opportunities to new scholars from equity seeking groups; offering EDI training to highly qualified personnel who may be future chairholders; arranging meetings between university equity officers and CRC hiring committees to discuss hiring strategies that uphold EDI; training for CRC hiring committee members in unconscious bias; developing assessment rubrics incorporating equity criteria, potential interview questions that explore a candidate’s demonstrated commitment to inclusivity, and suggested equity and inclusion language for job postings; designating equity representatives for CRC hiring committees; providing equity and inclusion language for job postings; helping tailor outreach efforts for each research-based hire to maximize the potential of attracting applicants from underrepresented groups; surveying CRC applicants to ask them to voluntarily self-identify as part of equity seeking groups; providing resources and information about assessment methodologies that value diverse worldviews, experiences and methods of scholarly research and creative work; and using applicant self-identification data as appropriate in decision making at each stage of the hiring process.

Next steps

Participants voiced their wish for a follow-up roundtable next year. Several suggestions were provided for possible topics at this second gathering:

  • Establishment of an association of equity officers.
  • Discussion of the “made in Canada” Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) initiative being implemented by the federal government.
  • Updates on NSERC 2020, especially as this plan relates to NSERC’s Framework on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
  • Updates from other granting agencies and university equity offices on ongoing initiatives that could serve as EDI best practices.