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Defending Equity in the Academy

Below are examples of some of the most common misconceptions about equity and anti-discrimination. Have more to add? Email:

1. Equity results in reverse discrimination.

Reverse discrimination does not exist. While prejudice can be aimed at anyone, discrimination (as it is used in the context of employment equity) is the outcome of histories of oppression. The legacies of this historical oppression as well as its current manifestations are embedded in the everyday lives of Aboriginal and racialized people as well as those who identify as LGBTQ2S+, having a disability, or as women. This is what gives individual acts of discrimination their immense power. The power of a particular act of racism or transphobia, for instance, is not simply the immediate experience of disrespect or violence, but the fact that this act reinforces generations of abuse that has been sanctioned explicitly or implicitly by the mainstream culture and society and by those who are accorded power and privilege within it.

Equity principles and process are intended to counteract the contemporary effects of historic injustices, working against the systemic forces of racism, ableism, sexism, and colonialism to ensure that everyone has equal employment opportunities.

2. Employment equity means hiring less qualified people.

This is a pervasive myth and one that circulates as an urban legend. It goes something like this:

“My buddy/my brother-in-law had an interview for a job. They were the best candidate, but a woman/racialized woman/ racialized man etc. got the job even though they clearly were not as qualified as him.”

But the story is implausible. How would one ever know that they were better or more qualified than another candidate? No prospective employer would ever share this information with a job-seeker.

Employment equity means providing all qualified and qualifiable individuals with equal employment opportunities, not just a select few. It means critically considering employment criteria for any discriminatory or exclusionary principles or practices and mitigating against bias.

3. The academy is a meritocracy; those who are the smartest and work the hardest will naturally rise to the top. Employment equity is great in other contexts, but in the academy it works to lower academic standards.

The academy is not a meritocracy. The notion that those who are the smartest and work the hardest will rise to the top is a myth. The most thoughtful, hardworking, and deserving scholars are not always the most rewarded. In fact, various forms of unearned advantage and a healthy dose of luck play a significant role in an individual’s academic success. Furthermore, the myth of academic meritocracy serves to justify various forms of systemic discrimination as well as disguise the increasing reliance of post-secondary institutions on the exploitation of contract academic staff.

The myth of academic meritocracy posits equity and excellence as conflicting principles. Since those with merit rise to the top “naturally”, equity work is understood as an attempt to degrade the high standards of the academy. Discussion of full and meaningful inclusion of marginalized academic staff is commonly met with fears that prized “academic values” will be compromised in the process.

Collectively, we need to counter the notion that equity and excellence are at odds; because, in fact, equity and excellence are inextricable. What better places than institutions of higher learning for an appreciation of and engagement with expansive understandings of knowledge?

Universities/colleges would be better able to advance their essential functions namely the development and dissemination of knowledge if the academic staff represented the diversity of the Canadian population.

“It is not that individual in the designated groups are inherently unable to achieve equality on their own, it is that the obstacles in their way are so formidable and self-perpetuating that they cannot be overcome without intervention. It is both intolerable and insensitive if we simply wait and hope that the barriers will disappear with time. Equality in employment will not happen unless we make it happen.”

Judge Rosalie Abella, Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, 1985

4. The only way to create a colour-blind society is to adopt colour-blind policies.

To remedy any injustice, it is necessary to understand and challenge the ways in which it functions. Understanding how the racialization of diverse groups of people has changed over time because of political, economic, and social forces can allow us to better understand “race” as a social construction rather than the inherent outcome of any grouping of biological traits.

However, understanding processes of racialization does not mean we ignore the fact that racism is alive and well. To make change, we must acknowledge that power and privilege are accorded to people very differently based on the ways in which they are (or are not) racialized. The playing field is not level and the rules of the game privilege only a select few. We must change the rules of the game to ensure that those who are systemically disadvantaged have an opportunity to succeed. Pretending that we do not see “race” will make this impossible.

5. It is too difficult and expensive to accommodate persons with disabilities.

The basic facts say otherwise: Over two-thirds of accommodations for workers with disabilities cost less than $500. Many accommodations require no financial resources. Furthermore, employers have a legal obligation to accommodate employees with disabilities (as well as people identifying with other protected grounds under human rights codes) up to the point of “undue financial hardship.”  Sometimes finding appropriate accommodations for individuals requires making deeper changes that can be complex and challenging. Challenging systemic discrimination and changing discriminatory practices is difficult; it is also necessary to ensure that our workplaces are accessible and inclusive.

6. Equity means treating everyone equally.

Treating everyone the same way assumes that everyone already has the same opportunity, access, and ability (i.e. a level playing field).  Equity refers to what is fair under the circumstances. It means achieving equal outcomes – but may involve treating people differently.

For example, an accessibility ramp makes it possible for someone who uses a wheelchair to get into a building or area of a building that they would not if there were only stairs. Equity means not everyone is treated the same, to ensure equal access and benefits.