Let’s Stand Up and Be Counted: Gender and the Need for a Better Understanding of the Profession

By Thomas Peace

Since January I’ve developed a bad habit of becoming completely enveloped by the live concerts on the Apple TV Station Qello. I just can’t stop watching them. A couple of months ago my partner (who wisely goes to bed rather than getting sucked into hours of concert watching) decided to join me. After a few tunes she turned to me and asked if the channel ever played any women artists (they do, periodically). Then she said: “Come to think of it, the music industry is dominated by male artists. Can you think of a musical group where there is a gender balance?” I couldn’t and I still can’t.

Not long after that conversation, I found myself at this year’s annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association where Lori Chambers, Elise Chenier and Anne Toews released some of the preliminary results from their analysis of the sex distribution in publications and prizes. The details of that study are really for them to share (though Active History would be happy to serve as a forum for this discussion). Suffice it to say, that their study demonstrates that publishing history in Canada continues to be a highly gendered practice. Since then I’ve been part of a number of conversations (with significantly different groups of people and without me directing the topic of discussion) where similar trends have been suggested in recent hires into tenure track jobs. The argument being that currently men are more likely to get hired than women.

Those of you who read Active History regularly will know that I like to reflect on the nature of the profession. So all of this talk about the gendered nature of the historical discipline got me counting. Over the last few nights I’ve gone through 47 departmental websites counting male and female faculty members in order to get a better understanding of the gendered dynamics of the profession. Like most of my posts written in this vein, this one is not so much a rigorous study as it is an initial impression. I offer it more to spark discussion and further study than as conclusive evidence about our professional culture.

First a little bit about the limitations to my “study”. Some history departments do not easily distinguish between sessional, contract and retired faculty on their website. In cases where it was ambiguous, I included everyone listed on the site. Likewise, a number of departments list administrators and research chairs that only have a minimal presence in day-to-day departmental life. They too have often been included. A more intentional and thorough examination would be able to better negotiate this terrain, resulting in somewhat different numerical conclusions. As a starting point, however, I think the numbers I’ve arrived at are revealing and indicative of some of the broader trends indicated above.

As a profession, university-based historians are failing to achieve equality of the sexes. Of the 1,003 historians included in this sample, 624 are men and 379 are women. On average in Canada then, there are 1.65 male history professors for every female professor. In the “average department” this means that 62 percent of the faculty are men and 38 percent are women (a 24 percent gap). Half of the 47 departments that I looked at have a gap larger than twenty percent. One third of the departments have a lower percentage of women than their institutions as a whole (using data from Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension). In eight departments, women comprise 30 percent or less of the full-time faculty. Six history departments (some of them with significant influence in the profession) have ten or more men than they have women.

The University of Lethbridge is the only history department in the country with more women than men. Mount Allison and Western, however, have achieved gender parity with an equal number of women and men. By percentage of the department, McMaster, Brock and Concordia rank fourth, fifth and sixth, all having a percentage difference of less than ten between men and women. If we look at these statistics another way, examining the difference in number (rather than percentage) of women and men in history departments, another set of departments takes these spots: The Université de Moncton, Saint Francis Xavier University, Brock and McMaster only have one more man than women in their faculty complement. If their next two hires were women, they’d change this landscape significantly. What this diversity of institutions demonstrates, I think, is that university size, language and regional location do not prevent gender equity in history departments. Rather, the difference between institutions perhaps reflects specific departmental and institutional cultures.

I find these results concerning. Although we’d hope to see improvement over time, history departments fair slightly worse than the average for humanities, social sciences and education in a 2011 national study on gender in Canadian universities. Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension, an expert panel on women in university research, found that overall in these disciplines women comprised about forty percent of full time faculty. It gets even worse if we look more specifically at the 2010/2011 numbers of faculty working in related fields of study from Statistics Canada’s discontinued University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS):


Percentage Male

Percentage Female




Social Sciences






Liberal Arts



Legal Professions and Studies






Aboriginal and Foreign Languages






Though history departments today appear to be slightly better than they were five years ago, and better than the social sciences as a whole, that was FIVE YEARS AGO and “social sciences” is a much larger category (nearly four times the size). At best, assuming there has been no change in the sector as a whole, the numbers from Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity suggests that history departments are in keeping with their broader institutional cultures. However, the Statistics Canada data cited above makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that aside for the broad grouping of “social sciences”, history departments seem to be less equitable than others in our faculties.

What is even more glaring is that since 1989 Canadian universities reached gender parity in student enrolment. Today there are more women than men enrolled in undergraduate and masters programs with parity at the doctoral level. With nearly a quarter century between then and now, why haven’t we seen a similar transition in the professoriate? Why have a handful of schools come close to parity while others languish behind?

There are, of course, generational considerations to be factored in. The professoriate changes at a much slower pace than student bodies. I haven’t looked at faculty on departmental websites by academic rank. UCASS numbers, though, point to some generational improvement. In 2010-2011, women comprised 43 and 41 percent of faculty at the ranks of associate and assistant professor (but only 23 percent of full professors, which brings UCASS numbers in line with my own). That said, Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity, indicates that women make up 48 percent of assistant professors (and 58 percent of MA and PhD candidates) in the humanities, social sciences and education (p. 39 and 42), suggesting again that history departments have some work to do in comparison with allied disciplines.

This of course points us to longer-term improvements in the status of women on Canada’s campuses. Looking back at UCASS data from the early 1970s suggests we shouldn’t just focus on the negatives. Back then men comprised 91 percent(!) of the faculty in history departments at Canadian universities. So we’ve seen about a thirty percent reduction over the past 45 years. Though this is a positive development, if we compare with the legal professions, which were 95 percent male dominated in 1970 but have now come close to equity, it suggests that our colleagues in other disciplines have done a better job at balancing gender discrepancies in their professional cultures. Once more indicating that there is some room for improvement.

All of this points me towards the need for a more rigorous culture of accountability in our discipline. The pun here is intended. If we’re going to see continued change in this area (and others) we need to encourage the keeping and publishing of statistics about departmental composition. I suspect we’d have greater gender equity in our departments, for example, if hiring committees, publishers and journals were required to count and publish the number of submissions they received using broad gender-based categories. Selections of short lists and acceptances would then be informed by a deeper understanding of the pool of applicants and institutional culture.

Similarly, graduate programs and undergraduate programs should keep and publish similar statistics (this is already the case at many universities). It should be easy for people on the job market and prospective students to find out how many men and women enter each graduate program and how many successfully complete the program each year? Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity draws a clear connection, for example, between PhD completion rates and gender balance in the professoriate.

With these numbers in hand, and in comparison with job market and publication data, we can then begin to knowledgeably discuss and explore the root causes of these discrepancies. Currently the conversation seems to often take place in a vacuum of evidence. We don’t tolerate these types of conversations in our research or teaching, so why would we when we reflect on the profession as a whole? This is where the Canadian Historical Association could focus more of its attention, calling for greater professional recognition for those historians who turn their training towards better understanding the profession as a whole. (Incidentally, greater recognition for service work is one of the recommendations made in Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity. See p. 143)

Gender is just one of a number of areas that need more attention. At the CHA this year, for example, I was part of a broader discussion focusing on the absence from the association of historians who study periods before the mid-nineteenth century. Similarly, Luke Clossey has called our attention to geographic discrepancies in the profession. Franca Iacovetta and Mary Jane McCallum have illustrated the challenges the discipline faces in terms of ethnic diversity among other important topics (Iacovetta covers most of the subjects addressed in this paragraph). And of course, debates wax and wane about the status of bilingualism. In all of these areas, we could use a more rigorous and sustained foundation from which to critically engage.

The AHA does this well through their Perspectives on History magazine. Here in Canada, though, we need to be more intentional about understanding our professional practice. It’s time that we stand up and be counted.

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9 thoughts on “Let’s Stand Up and Be Counted: Gender and the Need for a Better Understanding of the Profession

  1. Sean Kheraj

    I’d be interested to see a comparison of equity hiring and affirmative action policies of universities across Canada. These are ostensibly the mechanisms for addressing such matters. How well do they work? How seriously are they applied?

  2. Christopher Schultz (@ckschultz1)

    (Better than) parity has been achieved in enrollment; what about completion rates for the sexes? I think that would make a compelling follow-up question where students are concerned.

    Also, I’m curious now about the racial make-up of History departments in this country. I suspect it’s not very diverse, either in students or in profs.

  3. merlemassie

    Although completion rates are indeed an important metric, they are generally not one that departments like to have published — although good, self-reflective departments will go through this process on a regular basis, counting noses and doing some calculations.

    Sean, your question about affirmative action policies is indeed relevant, and should be questioned.

  4. Claire Campbell

    To echo Chris, above: I would suspect the numbers in terms of racial diversity would be shocking. As in: there is almost none. And as if not more troublingly, is there any sign that we, as a discipline/profession, are ready to talk about why? It’s not limited to history in the Canadian academy, of course, but I don’t think we’d be much out of whack for the humanities and social sciences generally.

  5. Tom Peace Post author

    I love the way that this discussion has gone, focusing more broadly on the overall nature of the profession in Canada. I’m hoping that some of these questions can be picked up and developed over the coming year.

    A few developments to add to this post. First, Matthew Hayday mentioned to me on Twitter that the University of Guelph has a gender balance in its department. Their website has a number of retirees which I included in my count, which may explain why this wasn’t apparent in my numbers.

    Second, the comment about women and history at #OzHA2015, which indicates that my post was linked to, is really worth reading in full. It discusses gender in the Australian context and arrives at some different conclusions. In reference to this post, I ran some numbers using the CHA program from this year. I had to exclude a handful of people for whom I could not easily identify their sex, but it looks much closer to parity than departments: about 52% male and 48% female. Taken together, I think these two posts point to the value of thinking about these issues comparatively.

  6. Adele Perry (@AdelePerry)

    thanks to Tom for this important reality check. I will echo the point made in the final paragraph, and raised again by Christopher Schultz and Claire Campbell in the comments above, that the numbers of Indigenous people and racialized people who are hired as historians, and more particularly historians of Canada, needs some serious scrutiny. To Sean Kheraj’s question about employment equity policies, I think there is a certain amount of variety across the country, but mainly, their goal is to ensure fairness and a small measure of proactivity (is that a word? anyway) in specific hiring processes. Unto themselves they don’t usually have much impact on how department’s and universities define a given position or what is a strong candidate for it.

  7. domarsha

    Many thanks for the conversation, the numbers and the initial post. I will all this it to the CHA Executive when we meet in a few days, and to Council in the Fall. The Equity portfolio holder has long been concerned by these issues, and has followed the AHA monitoring processes. The CHA’s questionnaire was interrupted for lack of means because of questions of anonymity. But the Executive would welcome suggestions for future inquiries and actions.

  8. Lara Campbell

    I also wonder if part of the issue is that some (or many?) folks trained in history are working outside of history departments? We discussed this at a session at the CHA in May – there are probably hundreds (if not more) historians working in non-history departments, and they are rarely, if ever, counted. But they may be teaching cross-listed or designated history courses (Women’s and Gender studies; Sociology; Health studies; First Nations Studies; Liberal Studies; Education; Canadian Studies, etc). The question then becomes whether we’re talking solely about History Departments or about the discipline of history (and the teaching of history). I’d love to see a larger study about this!

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