Keeping Our Foot on the Equity Gas Pedal

A post from the FAUW Lecturers Committee and FAUW Equity Committee.

The University of Waterloo made an important commitment to make progress towards gender equity by joining the HeForShe initiative in 2014 and meeting its faculty HeForShe commitments in 2018. Of particular note for this blog post is the goal of 30% female faculty representation. Efforts towards gender parity, particularly in faculty positions, need to be long-term and sustained to ensure that equity considerations in the hiring process, promotion process, and general work culture become and persist as the norm. What is more, equity needs to occur at the micro level (i.e., faculties and departments) in addition to the macro level (i.e., university-wide). When looking at gender parity in our faculty members since 2009, university-wide, the impact of the HeForShe campaign and other equity initiatives is clear. Faculty-wide female representation has increased steadily from 25% in 2009 to almost 31% in 2021. While this is indeed progress, there are some areas for improvement. In this post, we would like to track UW’s gender parity, but it is important to note that the data we draw from is limited in that it retains cis-gender binary distinctions. 

Looking at specific faculty roles, it is clear there is a need for sustained long-term equity efforts. First, female representation at the full professor level is much lower compared to other faculty roles. While there was a fairly steady rate of female representation at the associate professor level (~31.6%), there was a decline in female representation in assistant professors and continuing lecturers from 2018 to 2021. These could be early warning signs that we are taking our foot off the metaphorical equity gas pedal. The decline in assistant professor female representation is particularly worrisome, given that this is the beginning of the current professorial ranks (i.e., assistant, associate, and full professor) and declines in female representation at this rank will make it impossible to achieve the long-term change needed at the full professor rank. We all need to keep our foot on the gas pedal to ensure that equity gains are sustained in the long-term across all faculty ranks.

Graph depicting female representation in different faculty types in 2009, 2014, 2018, and 2021. For all faculty, female representation was 25% in 2009, 29% in 2014, 30% in 2018, and 31% in 2021. For full professors, female representation was 14% in 2009, 18% in 2014, 21% in 2018, and 23% in 2021. For associate professors, female representation was 27% in 2009, 32% in 2014, 32% in 2018, and 32% in 2021. For assistant professors, female representation was 34% in 2009, 40% in 2014, 41% in 2018, and 38% in 2021. For continuing lecturers, female representation was 41% in 2009, 28% in 2014, 38% in 2018, and 33% in 2021. For all lecturers, female representation was 35% in 2009, 42% in 2014, 37% in 2018, and 45% in 2021.
Figure 1. University Level Gender Parity Across Faculty Types 2009 – 2021. Data Source: Statistics Canada University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS)

Another point of note is that the highest female representation in 2021 was for the lecturer rank with almost 45% female representation, 14 percentage points higher than the average across all faculty. While this almost 50:50 representation is laudable, it is potentially concerning if women are choosing this role instead of a conventional professorial role for gendered reasons or if biases still exist in the hiring stream that led to this differing trend in female representation in the teaching-stream. Some important questions for us to consider and reflect on are:

  • Are women self-selecting into teaching-stream roles because of a perceived higher workload in the current professorial ranks, stereotype threat, or self-efficacy doubts?
  • Are women self-selecting into teaching-stream roles due to perceived incongruousness between professorial-rank positions and family responsibilities and priorities?
  • Do gendered biases persist in the hiring of professorial candidates?

Faculty-level gender parity

While the University may have met its HeForShe targets (perhaps in part thanks to some faculties that exceeded the HeForShe targets before they were declared in 2014), it is clear that some faculties still have some way to go to meet these targets individually. It comes as no surprise that the faculties of Engineering and Mathematics have lower female representation compared to other faculties given that lower female representation has been a long-standing, well acknowledged problem in these fields. The long-standing nature of this lower female representation makes meeting the HeForShe targets at the faculty level in Engineering and Mathematics particularly important. We need to make meaningful changes to address systemic issues regarding representation in these fields and ensure that all students can ‘see themselves’ in those who are teaching them and researching at the forefront of their fields.

Graph depicting female representation across faculties in 2009, 2014, 2018, and 2021. For the entire university, female representation was 25% in 2009, 29% in 2014, 30% in 2018, and 31% in 2021.  For the Faculty of Arts, female representation was 38% in 2009, 45% in 2014, 45% in 2018, and 43% in 2021. For the Faculty of Engineering, female representation was 14% in 2009, 18% in 2014, 19% in 2018, and 20% in 2021. For the Faculty of Environment, female representation was 36% in 2009, 35% in 2014, 39% in 2018, and 39% in 2021. For the Faculty of Health, female representation was 39% in 2009, 45% in 2014, 43% in 2018, and 44% in 2021. For the Faculty of Mathematics, female representation was 18% in 2009, 19% in 2014, 19% in 2018, and 21% in 2021. For the Faculty of Science, female representation was 23% in 2009, 28% in 2014, 31% in 2018, and 33% in 2021.
Figure 2. Gender Parity Across Faculties 2009 – 2021. Data Source: Statistics Canada University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS)

Department-level gender parity

When data is only assessed at the faculty or university level, high female representation in one department can mask lower female representation in another department. We encourage you to find your faculty and department in the figures below to see how your department compares to the university-wide female representation of ~31%. This university-wide female representation level is represented by a dashed black line.

When we look at female representation at the department level, the range across departments is large: 13% to 70%.  The range is widest in the Faculty of Arts (20% to 70%) but every faculty has varying levels of female representation across their departments:

  • Faculty of Arts: 20% in the Department of Economics to 70% in Fine Arts.
  • Faculty of Engineering:  13% in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to 42% in the School of Architecture.
  • Faculty of Environment: 31% in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development to 45% in the School of Planning.
  • Faculty of Health: 38% in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences to 65% in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies.
  • Faculty of Mathematics: 17% in the Mathematics Business and Accounting Programs to 39% in the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing.
  • Faculty of Science: 16% in the Department of Physics and Astronomy to 62% in the School of Optometry and Vision Science.

While across the University, and in most departments, it is women who are under-represented, it is important to acknowledge that there are some departments (e.g., Fine Arts, Anthropology, Sociology and Legal Studies, Spanish and Latin American Studies, Recreation and Leisure Studies, School of Optometry and Vision Science) where men are under-represented (≤40%), and these departments may benefit from efforts to recruit and support male hiring, retention, and promotion.

This graph depicts department level female representation in the Faculty of Arts. Female representation is 63% in Anthropology, 25% in Classical Studies, 41% in Communication Arts, 20% in Economics, 48% in English Language and Literature, 70% in Fine Arts, 57% in French Studies, 50% in Germanic and Slavic Studies, 27% in History, 44% in Philosophy, 48% in Political Science, 46% in Psychology, 33% in Religious Studies, 31% in the School of Accounting and Finance, 63% in Sociology and Legal Studies, 60% in Spanish and Latin American Studies, and 50% in the Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business.
Figure 3. Faculty of Arts – Department-Level Female Representation. Data Source: University of Waterloo Department Webpages.
This graph depicts department-level female representation in the Faculty of Engineering. Female representation is 42% in the School of Architecture, 25% in the Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business, 26% in Chemical Engineering, 17% in Civil and Environmental Engineering, 13% in Electrical and Computer Engineering, 21% in Management Sciences, 18% in Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering, and 27% in Systems Design Engineering.
Figure 4. Faculty of Engineering – Department-Level Female Representation. Data Source: University of Waterloo Department Webpages.
This graph depicts department-level female representation in the Faculty of Environment. Female representation is 41% in Geography & Environmental Management, 40% in Knowledge Integration, 31% in School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, 35% in School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, and 45% in School of Planning.
Figure 5. Faculty of Environment – Department-Level Female Representation. Data Source: University of Waterloo Department Webpages.
This graph depicts department-level female representation in the Faculty of Health. Female representation is 38% in Kinesiology and Health Sciences, 65% in Recreation and Leisure Studies, and 44% in School of Public Health Sciences.
Figure 6. Faculty of Health – Department-Level Female Representation. Data Source: University of Waterloo Department Webpages.
This graph depicts department-level female representation in the Faculty of Mathematics. Female representation is 22% in Applied Mathematics, 39% in Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing, 20% in Cheriton School of Computer Science, 21% in Combinatorics and Optimization, 17% in Mathematics Business and Accounting Programs, 21% in Mathematics Undergraduate Group, 18% in Pure Mathematics, and 29% in Statistics and Actuarial Science.
Figure 7. Faculty of Mathematics – Department-Level Female Representation. Data Source: University of Waterloo Department Webpages.
This graph depicts department-level female representation in the Faculty of Science. Female representation is 38% in Biology, 23% in Chemistry, 26% in Earth and Environmental Sciences, 16% in Physics and Astronomy, 33% in Science and Business, 50% in Science and Aviation, 62% in School of Optometry and Vision Science, and 42% in School of Pharmacy.
Figure 8. Faculty of Science – Department-Level Female Representation. Data Source: University of Waterloo Department Webpages.

Recommended actions for long-term, sustained equity efforts

While the HeforShe Initiative represented a positive, short-term initiative in making meaningful progress on gender equity, the University must recommit to making progress towards gender parity, given that there are early signs of reverting to pre-initiative gender ratios in the assistant professor role. The decline in female representation in this assistant professor role is particularly alarming because this is the entry-point to the current professorial pipeline. Efforts are needed not only at this entry-point but also throughout the pipeline to increase female representation at all ranks. Taking the following actions would demonstrate meaningful commitments towards sustained and long-term gender equity:

  1. The University of Waterloo should commit to a new gender equity target that expands upon the earlier commitments made as part of the HeforShe Initiative.
  2. The University of Waterloo should acknowledge that the pandemic placed increased professional and personal burdens on everyone, but particularly on women and those who have caregiving responsibilities. This impacted the mental health and wellness of these faculty members and has the potential to negatively impact evaluation, retention, and promotion of women faculty. The University should support faculty mental health and wellness in a gender equitable manner by (1) creating a strong ‘disconnecting from work’ policy, as required by 2 June, 2022, due to changes in the Employment Standards Act, that includes disconnecting from communication with students and providing language regarding this communication policy for inclusion in course outlines, (2) enabling faculty to take the time off to which they are currently entitled, and (3) providing more faculty time off. Taking time off can be particularly challenging for those in teaching-stream positions who are not eligible for sabbatical and often cannot have a non-teaching term without a redistribution of their teaching load.

    Challenges with taking vacation time in teaching-stream positions were highlighted in the blog post Help Dr. X take their vacation! The cost of a non-redistributed non-teaching term for teaching-stream faculty was highlighted in the blog post How much would a true non-teaching term cost?

    The University of Waterloo should do more than encourage review committees to consider pandemic effects during the Annual Performance Review. The University should incorporate a university-wide compassionate consideration of pandemic impacts into the Annual Performance Review process to acknowledge the long-term impacts that additional pandemic demands have had on faculty. Additionally, the potential impacts of a ‘disconnecting from work’ policy on both Annual Performance Reviews and the Tenure and Promotion Process must also be pro-actively considered. If the policy is voluntary (i.e., faculty can choose whether to disconnect or not), women and those with caregiving responsibilities may be more likely to follow this policy compared to their peers. Without guidance on how this new policy should be considered during annual performance reviews and tenure and promotion, gender inequities could result. 
  1. The University of Waterloo should establish a mentorship and peer networking program for female faculty that will support female faculty to persist in the academic pipeline

These actions are focused on gender equity. However, inequities in our university and academia at large are not limited to gender. Several of these actions could be expanded to address the broader dimensions of equity.

All of these recommended actions are supported by the literature:

  • M.I. Cardel et al., ‘Turning chutes into ladders for women faculty: A review and roadmap for equity in academia,’ Journal of Women’s Health, vol. 29, no. 5, pp. 721 – 733, 2020. DOI: 10.1089/jwh.2019.8027
  • S. Gaudet, I. Marchand, M. Bujaki, I.L. Bourgeault, ‘Women and gender equity in academia through the conceptual lens of care,’ Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 74 – 86, 2022. DOI: 10.1080/09589236.2021.1944848
  • J.L. Malisch, et al., ‘In the wake of COVID-19, academia needs new solutions to ensure gender equity,’ PNAS, vo. 117, no. 27, pp. 15378 – 15381, 2020. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2010636117
  • J. Stepan-Norris, J. Kerrissey, ‘Enhancing gender equity in academia: Lessons from the ADVANCE program,’ Sociological Perspectives, vol. 59, no. 2, pp. 225 – 245, 2016.

Information on Data Sources: To assess the current state of gender equity at the University of Waterloo, university-wide and faculty-level data was gathered from the Statistics Canada University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS) submissions with 2021 being the most recent data point. At the department-level, data was gathered from department websites. This department-level data represents a ‘snapshot’ of the faculty at a moment in time with each department’s data collected on a specific day between November 2021 and April 2022. Additionally, given that pronouns are not shown by default on department websites, genders were presumed based on available information (e.g., name, photo, use of pronouns in descriptions).


Jenny Howcroft is a lecturer in Systems Design Engineering and a member of the FAUW Lecturers Committee. Amanda Garcia is a lecturer in the Digital Assets Group at the Mathematics Undergraduate Office and a member of the FAUW Lecturers and Equity committees.

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