OTTAWA | February 10, 2012

Carrie Derick: Canada’s first female professor

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Walk through almost any university department in Canada today and it is easy to find the name of at least one female professor on the doors lining the hallway.

A century ago, it would have been almost impossible to find any women recognized in academics at all.

Derick was one of the first women to attend McGill in 1889

Carrie Derick changed that. In 1912, at McGill University in Montreal, she became a full-time professor after years of groundbreaking work in genetics, making her the first full female professor in Canada.

Derick’s landmark achievement led to her inclusion in Library and Archives Canada’s "Celebrating Women’s Achievements" initiative in 2000.

Derick’s efforts paved the way for women in academics, an accomplishment which has not been celebrated enough, says Ingrid Birker, administrator of the Science Outreach and Public Program at McGill’s Redpath Museum.

Birker first discovered Derick while researching prominent women from McGill University. As she read through the names, she realized what a gem was hidden in McGill’s past.

Not only was Derick the first female professor in Canada, she was also a pioneer geneticist, women’s rights advocate and social reformer.

Born in Clarenceville, Quebec in 1861, Derick spent most of her life tackling stereotypes and inequality.

"What I appreciate most about her is there’s a kind of compliance," said Birker. "She had to fight throughout her career. There’s a passion that goes beyond genetics."

No stranger to adversity

After completing enough research to earn her Ph.D in Germany at the University of Bonn in 1906,Derick was told that she would not be granted the recognition because of her gender.

"Imagine doing all of this work and being told that just because it’s never been put on a piece of paper before, it can’t be done," said Birker. "[Women] would come up against these walls all the time."

When the chair of McGill’s botany department died in 1910, Derick, who at this point was working as a part-time lecturer in genetics, took on his duties temporarily.

In 1912 she was asked to apply formally for the job she had been holding for two years. She did not get it.

The department offered her a job as professor instead, which she took.

She had to fight throughout her career. There’s a passion that goes beyond genetic. The appointment was to Professor of Morphological Botany, which was largely symbolic and did not include a seat on the faculty or the traditional pay raise. But she was officially a full professor, a position she held until her retirement in 1929.

Derick was also a women’s rights activist, helping to found the Montreal Council of Women in 1893 and advocating for women's access to contraceptive methods available at the time.

"She was breaking ground long before McGill," said Birker, "long before her own employer would give her a title."

There has not been much commemoration for Derick or many of her contemporaries, something Birker believes is easy to fix.

"We have so many visual and virtual platforms that we can use these days," she said, "[these women] weren’t really into image...but we need to get their images out there."

That is why Birker and her co-workers will oversee a public symposium in October to commemorate Derick and her achievements.

The symposium will feature speakers and panel discussions in the lecture hall at the Redpath Museum at McGill where Derick took classes as an undergraduate.

Women in academics today

A century later, differences remain between women and men in Canadian academics.

A Statistics Canada study recently found that in 2009-2010 about 30 per cent of full professors (as opposed to associate and assistant professors) were female. This is a significant improvement on the 2005-2006 levels of 24 per cent but demonstrates the challenges women still face in breaking into the higher levels of academics.

The gap between the number of female and male professors varies depending on the discipline.

The Canadian Association of University Teacher’s 2008 Equity Review found that while women made up almost 43 per cent of full professors in health professions, they made up only 6.5 per cent in engineering and applied sciences.

Carrie Derick’s historic position as a professor of botany falls under the category of Agriculture and Biological Sciences in the CAUT report. In that field today, only 18 per cent of professors were female, according to the report.    The symposium will be held at McGill's Redpath Museum

There are many explanations as to why this challenge persists today.

Women have only begun gaining a larger number of entry level positions in the past two decades. It often takes years for individuals to work their way up into senior positions, which suggests the levels might even out over the next few years, according to the CAUT report.

Women are also still more likely to put families and stability over promotional opportunities, according to a 2008 article published on the University Affairs website by Professor Marlene Pomrenke of the University of Manitoba.

The article offered women advice on how to break into academic faculty jobs, encouraging them to be geographically flexible, realistic about their skills and adaptable to the time commitments of academic life.

Although challenges still remain, opportunities for women in Canadian academics today are abundant compared to what was offered to Derick during her career.

Looking back on the challenges women overcame in the past century, one can only imagine what they will continue to achieve in the next hundred years.

Discipline matters

The number of women teaching full-time in post-secondary institutions varies depending on the discipline.

According to a study released by the Canadian Association of University Teachers in 2004, women represented 61.1 per cent in areas of health professions and occupations while only 11.5  per cent of the full-time staff in engineering and applied sciences. The breakdown on female representation across disciplines, based on the study, is as follows:

  • Health Professions and Occupations: 61.6%
  • Education: 49%
  • Fine and Applied Arts: 40.2%
  • Humanities: 40.3%
  • Social Sciences: 33.6%
  • Agriculture and Biological Sciences: 27.6%
  • Mathematics and Physical Sciences: 14.6%
  • Engineering and Applied Sciences: 11.5%
Where women stand today

The number of full-time female professors in academic institutions has increased over the years.

In the 2000 census it was calculated that women represented 26 per cent of  full-time academic staff.

By 2010 the number increased to almost 34 per cent. Detailed information on the numbers of female professors in the provinces is available in the multimedia section.

Source: Statistics Canada