In a 2019 letter entitled, “Canada’s research funding agencies raise the bar for a more diverse and inclusive research community,” Ted Hewitt, SSHRC President, Digvir S Jayas, NSERC Vice-President of Council, and and Michael Strong, CIHR President, sign off as follows:
“As signatories on this letter, we personally commit to refusing to participate on panels or in events that are not inclusive and do not reflect the diversity of the Canadian population.”1
One possible response to this virtue-signalling rhetorical flourish is to search for evidence that Hewitt, Jayas, and Strong have kept to their commitments. But what would, or even could, count as evidence?
For Hewitt, Jayas, and Strong to refuse to sit on a panel or attend an event that doesn’t meet their criteria of diversity and inclusion, they’d have to know ahead of time who is participating and how each participant is identified. Or self-identifies. Not-a-one of the trio make this criteria explicit, apart from “groups underrepresented in science, including but not limited to [bolding mine] women, Indigenous peoples, members of visible minorities/racialized groups, and persons with disabilities.” If this trio has a limit, where – and how – is the line drawn?
I won’t exhaust the possibilities here, but let’s take a cursory look at how Hewitt, Jayas, and Strong might vet for their participation, or not, on panels and in events.
One method the trio might use is to require a self-identification form be filled out by all participants. But this method is limited since participants may “prefer not to answer” questions about their self-identity. And self-identification data can’t be used to identify individuals without their explicit consent. Imagine the following announcement at the outset of a panel: I know we look like three old white guys, but I assure you we are diverse and inclusive. One of us is still in the closet, and another wears a colostomy bag. An end run around this ethical dilemma is to rely on cosmetic diversity as a vetting mechanism.
Jayas can himself serve as a token visible minority on some panels and in some events. And perhaps Hewitt and/or Strong are openly gay or of some other-than-straight sexual orientation. It’s easy to commit to diversity and inclusion if all you need to do is show up to make it so. But let’s assume, given the trio’s heartfelt personal commitment, that they’ve set the bar a little higher. How will they vet the other participants?
Photos and biosketches are usually circulated to advertise upcoming panels. And so Hewitt, Jayas, and Strong might simply look at their panel mates. But events are another matter. The trio might have little, if any, information to go on about their table mates at an awards or alumni event. And what would Hewitt, Jayas, and Strong do if they showed up to an event only to find that the participants who’d have added the requisite diversity were all at home with covid? Would they leave in a huff or stay to eat their two hundred dollars a plate meals? Would that “diverse” people were merely invited be enough to satisfy their commitment to diversity and inclusion, or do the invitees actually have to show up?
So how do our trio decide whether to participate in events? They might read the guest rosters to look for diverse names. But this vetting method is unreliable. If they bank on Tracy Smith being the token female, they might be taken aback by the imposing redheaded Irishman sporting this name tag. Jenine Hong might be a married name. And if you search Google images, my name, Pamela Lindsay, displays both white and black women.
It’s possible that Hewitt, Jayas, and Strong relegate the vetting of the diversity of panel members and event participants to their staff. Or rest on the assurances of a panel or event organizer, thereby absolving themselves from responsibility if things go wrong. Each can then claim to have agreed to participate in good faith. But this method is just pushing the problems I’ve illustrated back onto someone else. And the people relegated to do the vetting will no doubt, while they vet, keep each of these three executive’s judgments in mind. Hence, the following situation is liable to occur.
One worry about Hewitt, Jayas, and Strong making their commitment to diversity and inclusion public is that it is liable to encourage tokenism. If taken seriously. Hence, We’d better get us a transwoman on the panel or Hewitt won’t attend. Perhaps Hewitt can use what he doesn’t know about this transaction to maintain his innocence. But some might not let him off the hook for his ignorance.
The trio might take exception with my worry about tokenism, handwaving at their belief in the good faith of the organizers. But if they truly believe in the reliability of this good faith, it seems strange that they’d feel the need to personally commit to refuse to participate on a panel or in an event that is not inclusive and diverse. Hence, by making this commitment, Hewitt, Jayas, and Strong might not be acting in good faith. And they are, at the least, inconsistent.
Perhaps the trio’s commitment is a cheat since it’s highly likely any panel they sit on or event they participate in in a university setting will already be diverse and inclusive. And increasingly so.
Or maybe Hewitt, Jayas, and Strong bank on there being no more than a handful of people who’ve read their letter, as is the case with so many university missives. And fewer still who’ll check to see if there’s any substance to their virtue-signalling three years on.
 “Canada’s research funding agencies raise the bar for a more diverse and inclusive research community,” President’s Desk, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Date modified: 2019-06-27, https://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/about-au_sujet/president/2019/edi-eng.aspx, July 27, 2022.