Gender diversity takes centre stage in federal budget

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 More women in STEM a priority

By Mark Henderson

The Canadian government’s 2018 budget may go down in history as the first national feminist economic blueprint. Equality Growth: A Strong Middle Class introduces a bold series of initiatives to boost the participation of women and under-represented groups in science, business and society at large.

From research funding to business support systems, the budget lays out a roadmap for how the government will institutionalize much of its diversity and inclusion agenda. This includes measures to encourage, or in some cases mandate, research organizations and companies to increase the participation by and support of women.

And the government will be monitoring whether these actions lead to results. The budget includes new funding to track gender, diversity and inclusion — data that can be used to keep government, industry and academia’s collective feet to the fire.

“One of the first projects this would support is an analysis of the unique challenges visible minority and newcomer women face in finding employment in science, technology engineering and mathematics occupations,” states the budget, released February 27. “This research will fill important gaps in knowledge as to how to achieve greater diversity and inclusion among the high-paying jobs of tomorrow.”

Government officials have cited the stubbornly low participation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines as one of the main reasons for its feminist budget. Women represent just one-third of those studying engineering, math and computer science and on average they earn $9,000 less than their male counterparts.

The budget’s signature initiative for the research community is an historic increase in funding to the three granting councils — $925 million over five years to be shared by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). An additional $275 million is earmarked for “research that is international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and higher-risk”.

“With this investment, the granting councils will be tasked with developing new plans, strategies and targets to ensure greater collaboration between NSERC, CIHR and SSHRC and support for interdisciplinary research, as well as plans to achieve greater diversity among research funding recipients, including improved support for women, underrepresented groups and early-career researchers,” states the budget.

Supporting early career researchers

Significant new funding — $20 million over five years — for the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program is tied to improving the outcomes for early-career researchers and increasing the number of women nominated to hold new chairs. The granting councils are expected to take steps to ensure early-career researcher awards go to scientists “whose diversity better represents Canada’s population”.

Even new funding for the National Research Council is tied to requirements to include more women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities among its research staff and entrepreneurs supported through various programs.

The budget cites a McKinsey Global Institute study which estimates that “by taking steps to advance greater equality for women — such as employing more women in technology and boosting women’s participation in the workforce — Canada could add $150 billion to its economy by 2026.”

Supporting women entrepreneurs

In addition to academic research, the government also promises to incorporate greater diversity in its business innovation programs. In December, the government announced that its new Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative will require applicants “to demonstrate how they will improve gender representation among venture capital fund managers and portfolio companies”.

Additional measures in the February budget include:

  • $105 million over five years to Canada’s regional development agencies to support a Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy
  • $1.4 billion over three years for women entrepreneurs through the Business Development Bank of Canada. This commitment is in addition to an increase in BDC’s Women in Tech fund to $200 million from $70 million
  • $10 million over five years to connect women with expanded export services and opportunities through the Business Women in International Trade program
  • Plans to introduce measures to increase the number of women who participate in federal procurement from 10% to at least 15%

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