Decision-makers need to address women’s concerns

Why do some women get invited to attend the prestigious Queen’s University Symposium on Women and Leadership, while they are ignored by Ontario’s other educational institutions?

The recent decisions of Queen’s and Carleton University on invitations to visiting female speakers at their college-level events have prompted the Postmedia News to question whether the Maritimes are seeing a reverse discrimination at work.

Queen’s officials will say the university only invited Christine Trudeau, a scientist, to speak because she’s the sister of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, an honorary professor at the university, and an expert on soil microbiology.

Yet she will be the only woman invited at Queen’s.

Carleton does not qualify Trudeau’s subject area because she’s a critic of the federal government, and that’s not allowed. (I read a commentary piece Trudeau wrote last fall in the National Post, along with about half a dozen tweets, which showed clear bias against the government’s Liberal policies.)

The University of Guelph just denied a female student with a doctorate the ability to speak at its award ceremony. The university’s dean, Brie Weaver, an intelligent scholar, said the organiser of a speaker series disagreed with the woman’s views on Israel.

I understand Weaver’s concern. My campaign to make Israel an issue in North American politics has been criticised. I say to all Israeli friends: Stop denouncing the president of the United States for defending the country. There’s a “free speech” issue in play here.

But the two sides must both be brought to the table – unless the university seeks to shut out an important viewpoint because of the viewpoint expressed.

On the way to understand why there is this contradiction, one must take note of the recent controversy over an invitation to a female speaker at Carleton.

I originally wrote a column for the St. Catharines Standard – I’m grateful to The Canadian Press for paying for my column, and to the Standard for its service – where I ridiculed University of Guelph dean Brie Weaver’s letter suggesting that Canadian universities are blind to Israel.

Weaver wrote that “while it is clear from many of the speakers we have invited that there are different views within the Israeli and Palestinian communities, I would also have to agree that those views cannot be put forward on a university campus.”

She’s right. In politics it’s considered bad form to be critical of one’s political leaders.

So colleges must consider who they invite, not just who’s available. If a university’s grounds are to uphold an impartial view of all people, and not cater to special interest groups, what’s the argument against a university openly debating the matter of whether to identify Israel’s policies as colonial?

Those who dislike Israel should attend university events, but it would be better for the school to hold open forums of equal sensitivity, and prepare for the eventual day when someone with a different viewpoint may have a chance to present her voice, after debate.

The best way to ensure gender equity is to align educational institutions to women’s concerns. A realist like me knows it’s only a matter of time before women replace men as the majority of university students. That’s the signifier of a mature society, and it will happen faster if women’s concerns aren’t fully reflected in education.

Dr. Sharon Palmer is a CBC journalism professor and visiting fellow at Carleton University’s Munk School of Global Affairs. She can be heard weekdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on CBC Radio Two.

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