Barnard Center for Research on Women Advance at the Earth Institute at Columbia University
December 9-10, 2004
Women, Work and the Academy: Strategies for Responding to 'Post-Civil Rights Era' Gender Discrimination
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Women, Work and the Academy > Executive Summaries > Constance Backhouse

Women, Work and the Academy:
Strategies for Responding to Post-Civil Rights Era Gender Discrimination:
Research and Intervention Strategies

Constance Backhouse, Professor of Law, University of Ottawa

I have participated in, observed, researched, and published about gender discrimination in Canadian universities for more than two decades. Perhaps it was an inevitable offshoot of the first book I wrote with Leah Cohen in 1979, The Secret Oppression: Sexual Harassment of Working Women.[1] That was also the year I was appointed to a tenure-stream position in a very conservative and male-dominated faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario in London,Ontario. My notoriety for having co-authored the first Canadian book on what was then viewed as a controversial new topic, along with my interest in feminism and law, contributed to the creation of a very chilly climate within my own workplace. I can claim without hesitation that my experience at Western would provide an experiential base of knowledge about hostile and sexist treatment to rival many.

During the 1980s, law schools in Canada became contested sites of struggle, in which small groups of feminist law professors banded together to demand that previously patriarchal teaching and research environments make way for woman-focused agendas. The fall-out, often designated as the "gender wars," dislocated faculty and student relationships, wreaked havoc with the careers of some and the reputations of others, spawned several legal actions, and occasionally caught the attention of the mainstream media.[2] Women law professors in Ontario maintained feminist community throughout most of this decade by holding twice-yearly retreats throughout the province, where support could be solicited, strategies vetted, and comradeship cemented.[3] We created "women and law" courses as beachheads in the otherwise male-stream curricula. We supported "women and the law associations" for feminist law students. We created national feminist legal institutions such as LEAF and NAWL. [4] Our very own Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, which became the first law journal in Canada to pro-actively seek feminist, lesbian-positive, and anti-racist articles, published its first volume in 1985.

Although I was thoroughly implicated in all of this feminist law school organizing, I also turned my attention outside of the faculty to the wider university. Like its law school, the Western University had a reputation for conservatism, but there were a number of committed, politically engaged feminist faculty members scattered throughout the campus. In an odd way, I think that the unsupportive environment at Western generally gave rise to a cohesive, determined, deeply-rooted community of resistance. In 1980, we set up Western's Caucus on Women's Issues, to serve as a voice for feminist demands. The Caucus initiated various campaigns calling for affirmative action in faculty appointments, the introduction of women's studies curriculum, and campus safety. Its members also hosted hilariously funny dinners, at which we parodied our enemies and laughed until we wept. We publicly awarded annual medals, named after famous women from Canadian history, to the women who distinguished our community with their acts of bravery, the ones who had "taken the most cannon fodder" in the previous year. We gained strength through feminist reading groups. We created the feminist institution known as the "Wednesday lunch." We wrote university briefs, petitioned academic administrators, and wrote countless outraged letters to the university media.

In 1986, as chair of the Caucus's affirmative action committee, I was dismayed to discover that our university had nominated itself for a provincial employment equity award, and what was worse, received it! I resolved to do some research into the status of women at Western to balance the record of the ensuing flattering publicity. In 1988 I released what has come to be known as "the Backhouse Report," examining the highly discriminatory history of women faculty at Western, and making a number of radical proposals for change.[5] Shortly thereafter, three feminist faculty colleagues, Roma Harris, Gillian Michell, and Alison Wylie, joined with me to conduct a series of interviews with other faculty women. In 1989, our group report, which came to be known as the "Chilly Climate Report," documented the multiple "environmental factors" that continue to impact negatively on women's working environment across the university.[6] The ensuing media attention, and the viciously antagonistic response from Western's central administrators, created a furor that refused to die down for months and turned the report into a major cause celebre. In the end, the detrimental fall-out from the report also inspired more positive actions. Under Alison Wylie's leadership, a group of Western feminist joined together to create "The Chilly Collective" which published a full-length book detailing this history: Breaking Anonymity: The Chilly Climate for Women Faculty.[7] The Caucus obtained government funding to produce a video titled "The Chilly Climate for Women in Colleges and Universities," which has been distributed across North America, and continues to be used in classrooms and workshops even to this day.[8] A decade later, the York Stories Collective at York University in Toronto, cited our work at Western as one of the points of inspiration for their own volume, York Stories: Women in Higher Education, which brilliantly expanded the documentation of discrimination to include race, gender, class, disability, age, sexual identity, and antisemitism.[9] It was with the greatest of pride that I represented the Western collective at the incredibly successful York book launch, and it reminded me again of the contagiousness of women's courage.[10]

In 2000, I left Western for an appointment to the faculty of law, University of Ottawa. The university has a much more progressive reputation than Western, and its law school has been administered by feminists and pro-feminists for more than a decade. Not coincidentally, Ottawa's law school emerged from its gender wars with the highest ratio of female law professors and female law students in the country. Since my appointment, I have felt freer to teach more social justice material than ever before. I have also personally been the recipient of a series of awards and honours from the university that would have been unfathomable for a feminist at Western. The environment, while by no means completely expunged of discrimination, represents a sea-change from the chilly climate of my first two decades. And as I look around, I notice that there are other faculties and universities that can also claim to have made substantial movement. A number of Canadian universities now have at least some female (and feminist) chairs, deans, provosts and even presidents. Many of us now hold positions of relative power in the academy.

And yet, looking more carefully, it seems to me that we are still far from achieving what we sought at the outset. Our universities have remained stubbornly male-centered in their core curricula, pedagogy, and administrative processes. Our female students complain of much of the same sorts of discrimination and harassment that we faced as students. Our expanding knowledge about the dangers of treating gender as an essential attribute, and the importance of incorporating the intersectionality of race, disability, class, and sexual identity, has not translated into anything like a full inclusion of more diverse faculty and students in the academy. What change we have wrought remains at the margins. Worse, we seem stalled on a plateau, even in the most hospitable institutions, with lagging spirits and lowered horizons.

What accounts for this? One might speculate about several possibilities. We have lost some of our most impressive feminist faculty to tenure-battles, voluntary resignations, early retirements and illnesses. Reflecting the women's movement more generally, we have not managed fully to renew our ranks from incoming younger generations. Some of us in positions of relative power have been forced by institutional, faculty, and student pressures to compromise. At times, it is less a problem of external pressures, and more of internal self-censorship. Many of us have laboured so long in chilly environments that we have developed what might be characterized as a "trench mentality." We can't stop thinking of ourselves as speaking from the perspective of the powerless, as perennial victims. We have difficulty recognizing how much power we actually now hold, and we neglect to exercise the options that are available. Some of us would describe ourselves as "burned out," while others, who seem to be working longer hours than ever before, would frankly admit that it is not radical feminist activism that engages the bulk of our time. To the extent that we are engaged with feminism, our projects are diffuse and our energies dispersed. If there is a unifying theme within feminism in these recent years, it appears to be critique. We complain that feminist authors do not grasp the issues properly, we fault the process and results of feminist research, we disagree with how conferences and workshops are organized, we dismember feminist organizations, we critique feminist leaders and their strategies. In addition to all of these problems, we face a cultural context of increasingly conservative politics, educational under-funding, corporatization of the academy, and the pressures of globalization.

Given all of this, what are the prospects for moving beyond the plateau? I think workshops such as these are a great place to start. I would offer the following plan as a possible departure point for engaged discussion:

  1. the convening of a series of small-group regional workshops.

    Essentially, we need to know who is out there - the still-militant, those whose spirits are sagging but who are still prepared to commit, and the new-comers. The objective would be to identify, and bring together, faculty members who have expertise in feminism, critical race, disability, class, and gay and lesbian issues - and an interest in the transformation of the academy. The workshops should be designed to allow participants to share and evaluate their experiences, and think creatively about the next stage.

  2. the creation of informal networks.
    The objective would be to keep the participants from these workshops in communication with each other, and with the participants from other workshops, to share information and collaborate on strategies. Although I would not recommend the creation of formal associations or institutions, or the expenditure of substantial resources on this.

  3. the development of a clear focus.
    This is an attempt to get beyond the diffusion problem. Although I suspect this will be a contentious idea, I think we need to narrow our goals into one or two manageable projects at a time. I would suggest that potential projects be judged on their creativity as well as their feasibility and the potential for maximizing change. I would also recommend that we select projects that are fun.

  4. the consolidation of forces.
    The objective would be to pool our strengths and resources. Once the specific projects have been identified, we need to identify who needs to be involved, what needs to be done, and what sort of timetable would work. We need to marshal our talents, energy, and relative power and privilege towards a focussed implementation.

  5. evaluation.
    We need a mechanism for the periodic review of the projects, strategies, and outcomes. We need to be able to identify when projects succeed, when they fail, and when they need to be redesigned mid-stream.

We also need to begin thinking about an entirely new chapter in the saga of the integration of women into the academy. In some pockets, we have now successfully recruited and retained 50% women faculty. (We have been far less successful in the recruitment and retention of visible minorities, faculty with disabilities, and out gays and lesbians. All of these areas require substantial improvement.) But where we have achieved equitable distributions, what should be our next objective? Is it sufficient to achieve the number balance alone? Or does that merely benefit the few women faculty who have achieved these prestigious positions, without altering the academic landscape more systematically?

One way of describing the options is to compare accommodation to transformation. Under the first model, the achievement of balanced faculty distributions is the final objective. The new faculty are required to accommodate themselves to the institution, and to succeed within the traditionally defined horizons. The second model would suggest that the equitable faculty numbers are simply the first step. The second model would require another stage as well: a deep-rooted transformation of the academy in more fundamental ways to take account of the distinctions of gender, race, disability, class, and sexual identity.

The transformation model would require us to reexamine every aspect of academic life: student body, faculty, alumni. We would need to work towards the composition of student bodies that reflected the population at large. We would need to recruit faculty who represent novel and unconventional backgrounds and talents. We would want to rethink how we define "the best" in faculty careers, so that we support and value a much wider array of characteristics and outputs. We would seek to assist our university graduates to find meaningful careers that advanced social justice interests, and to keep them integrally involved in the university.

The transformation model would also require us to reexamine our curriculum, our pedagogical methods, and our processes of evaluation. We would need to rethink our disciplinary divisions, our course offerings, and our student programming to respond more fully to the critique of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, disability privilege, and class bias. We would want to reexamine our educational methods, to ensure greater variety, and more sensitivity to equality concerns. We would need to reevaluate our grading processes to ensure that they were less wedded to narrow hierarchical models, and more fully capable of assessing the range of talents our students bring to their university education.

The vistas for change that might be contained within a truly transformational model of university education are daunting and challenging. Although all universities have begun to move in some of these directions already, few have made holistic revisions in ways that are both truly futuristic and deeply visionary. But I would argue that without such objectives, the campaigns we are waging to recruit and retain more diversified faculties will constitute only half-remedies, and fail to produce the truly egalitarian universities that we hope to create.


1. (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1979). Although initially a Canadian publication, the book was later revised and republished in the United States as Sexual Harassment on the Job (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981). [Return to text]

2. Many would date the commencement of the "gender wars" to 1986, when the "McIntyre Memo" was leaked to the press. This was an internal faculty memo detailing the discriminatory treatment received by a junior feminist law professor, Sheila McIntyre, at Queen's law school in Kingston, Ontario. It was subsequently circulated widely, and published in various national journals. In Toronto in 1987, York University chose an external male candidate for the position of dean at Osgoode Hall law school, over the internal female candidate. More than one hundred female law professors, lawyers, and law students filed a complaint of sex discrimination with the Ontario Human Rights Commission regarding the failure to appoint Professor Mary Jane Mossman. In 1989, Associate Dean Craig Brown at the faculty of law, University of Western Ontario, circulated a memo to the faculty on hiring policy that was supportive of two feminist colleagues who were seeking permanent appointments. The next day he was quoted in the local newspaper acknowledging and criticizing sexism within the law school. Two days later he was fired unceremoniously from his position as associate dean and removed from the appointments committee by the dean. He brought suit for wrongful dismissal, and the battle was followed fully by the media. The positions of the two Western feminist colleagues, Diana Majury and Cheryl Waldrum, were not renewed. For more details of the gender wars in Ontario law schools, see Bruce Feldthusen "The Gender Wars: 'Where the Boys Are'" in The Chilly Collective eds. Breaking Anonymity: The Chilly Climate for Women Faculty (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1995) 279-313. [Return to text]

3. The retreats, which attracted between 25 and 35 participants (occasionally including a few women from outside of Ontario) were housed initially at various law schools with billeting provided by the home faculty feminists. When they grew too large for this, we moved the venue to small country resorts. The first retreat was held in 1989. The last formally organized retreat took place in 1997. A small number of the participants continued to meet informally for several years after this, and the concept was reactivated in 2002, when a large retreat took place once more. [Return to text]

4. The acronyms stand for the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) - see Sherene Razack Canadian Feminism & the Law: The Women's LEAF & the Pursuit of Equality (Toronto: Second Story Press, 1991) - and the National Association of Women and the Law. [Return to text]

5. The report was widely circulated on campus, the subject of extensive attention in the mainstream media, and the subject of several large meetings convened by Western's Caucus on Women's Issues. The editors at the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law made the courageous decision to publish the report, although it did not really fit with the journal's mandate, and it appeared in volume 4 (1990) 36-65, thus allowing me to claim that it constituted "academic research" and should be protected under the mantle of academic freedom. It was republished as chapter 3, in The Chilly Collective eds. Breaking Anonymity 61-95. [Return to text]

6. This was also later published as chapter 4 in The Chilly Collective eds. Breaking Anonymity 97-132. [Return to text]

7. Ibid. Initial explorations into publishing at the University of Toronto Press came to naught, but Sandra Woolfrey, the director of Wilfrid Laurier University Press, courageously spear-headed the publication of these and other essays in the book, despite serious concerns of defamation lawsuits. [Return to text]

8. The video was produced by Kem Murch Productions, London, Ontario; funded by the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities and the Ontario Women's Directorate; and distributed by the Department of Equity Services, 295 Stevenson Lawson Building, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada N6A 5B8. [Return to text]

9. The York Stories Collective eds. York Stories: Women in Higher Education (Toronto: TSAR, 2000.) [Return to text]

10. The speech I delivered on the occasion of the book launch has been published as "Reflections on Feminist Activism Within Two Distinct Universities: Timing and Location for Transformational Activities" Resources for Feminist Research/Documentation Sur la Recherche Feministe 29:1/2 (2002) 117-24. [Return to text]

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