Wrong Diagnosis, Wrong Medicine

June 1 st 1993

Statistics Canada recently reported that between 1985 and 1990, employment in the 10 highest-paid occupations increased by 53 per cent for women, but only one per cent for men. What should we make of this news? That depends. It's wonderful if most of the women who gained entry to these elite jobs beat out their male competitors on the basis of merit. However, these results are, or ought to be, profoundly dismaying if they were mainly the result of discriminatory hiring.

Which was it? Statscan does not say, although some clues are contained in the agency's raw figures. Consider the judiciary, the highest-paying occupation in the country with average annual earnings in 1990 of $102,646. In that year, there were 475 women judges in Canada, up 98 per cent since 1985. During this same period, the number of male judges rose just 8.5 per cent to 1,660.

It is also noteworthy that in 1990, males outnumbered females in the legal profession by more than two to one. The fact that nearly twice as many females as males were appointed to the bench in the previous five years is difficult to explain on any basis other than that females benefited from special preference. That's fine with some feminists who favour even more discrimination against aspiring male judges on grounds that at the rates set for judicial appointments between 1985 and 1990, it will not be until sometime in the next century that women will finally achieve equal representation with men in the judiciary.

The University of Victoria, the Ontario College of Art, Ryerson University and St. Lawrence College have all bowed to this feminist perspective. In the pursuit of employment equity, they have placed a total ban on the hiring of male faculty. Why do the federal and provincial governments not do the same? In this way, they could accelerate the process of attaining gender equality, while dropping the pretence of hiring and promoting women on the basis of merit. For political reasons, few institutions are prepared to take employment equity quite to this logical conclusion. Most have taken a more moderate approach that purports to be consistent with considerations of merit.

For example, a recent study of appointments to tenured and tenure-track positions at the University of Calgary found that 27 per cent of the applicants for positions within the faculty of arts were women, yet these women obtained 70 per cent of the appointments . Was this fair? Terry Elrod, the researcher who undertook this study, says the probability that all of the women appointees in this case were better qualified than their male competitors is less than one in 450,000.

Anyone who thinks male academics gladly endure discrimination in the interest of achieving gender equality on campus has not visited a faculty lounge in recent years. But does male embitterment not at least pay off in solid gains for female faculty? Ruth Gruhn, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, doesn't think so. In a paper presented to the University in Jeopardy Conference, sponsored by the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship and the Fraser Institute last month, she maintained that preferential hiring undermines confidence in the abilities of its female beneficiaries. "Many university departments now have an explicit policy of hiring a man only if he is 'significantly' or 'demonstrably' superior to any available woman candidate," writes Gruhn. "If a man is hired, he must look damned good as compared to women.''

While refusal to hire any men is one solution to this problem, that's not Gruhn's preference. She argues that universities, as well as every other public and private organization in the country, should drop employment equity in favour of genuine equality of opportunity for all.

When it comes to hiring, symphony orchestras have the right idea: They select not just the minimally or acceptably qualified, but the best available talent. Auditions for a position with the New York Symphony are typically held behind a screen in a room with a carpet on the floor. This way adjudicators cannot see the candidate or hear the telltale clicking of high heels.

In the 1960s, Parliament and provincial legislatures tried to get all firms to abolish discrimination in hiring by passing laws forbidding employers from even asking about an employee's "ethnic group." In the 1990s, discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and ethnic origin has come back with a vengeance, this time in the guise of government-enforced employment equity.

Canadians who deplore this perversion of civil rights should refuse to go along. Preferential hiring is unfair. It feeds racist and sexist animosity. There can be no individual justice or social tranquillity without equal opportunity for all—male and female, black and white, and red and brown and yellow.


Rory Leishman is a national affairs columnist with the London Free Press.