Women’s Place in Workplace Health Research Priorities in Québec
Posted: 25 Aug 2010
Date Written: December 15, 2002
Recently, researchers have suggested that it is important to include women and to integrate gender into occupational health studies. We analysed the annual report of Québec’s Robert Sauvé Institute for Research in Occupational Health and Safety (IRSST), and found that the professions and sectors involved in studies carried out in 1999 had an average of 15% women workers. The Québec workforce is 45% female. Twelve of the 88 study populations were mixed or had a female majority and 76 were more than two-thirds male (Table 2). The former studies received an average grant of $86,339 compared to $114,480 for those on predominantly male populations (Table 1).
Previously, we had examined the composition of the six employment groups ranked by the Québec Occupational Health and Safety Commission (CSST) in order of priority for intervention and had noted that, as the priority level increased, the proportion of women decreased. We therefore examined the possibility that women workers were less often research subjects because their employment groups had lower priority for intervention. We did, in fact, find that many more grants are given for the study of workers in groups with high priority. Group I received $15.53 per worker in research grants while group VI received $0.91 per worker. However, even if the priority of the employment group is taken into account, women are underrepresented in research. In each priority group, there are fewer women in the professions and sectors studied than in the group as a whole (Table 3). A possible explanation for this is that women work in areas where there is little risk for their health. We have presented our arguments against this commonly-held idea elsewhere, but summarize these arguments here. In fact, rather than being absent, risks in jobs held by women are different from risks in other sectors, and are associated with specific health issues. For example, women are well represented in the helping and service professions, said to be at risk for mental health problems.
We therefore consider some additional hypotheses. First, it is likely that the choice of research themes by the Institute’s research council (accidents, personal protective equipment, noise and vibrations, tool and machine safety, chemicals, musculoskeletal disorders) excludes some that are more relevant for professions occupied by women. It should be noted that no studies concern gender or the sexual division of labour and contacts by students with the IRSST suggest that such studies are unwelcome.
Secondly, in order to appreciate the importance of considering occupations by gender, some training or interest in the social sciences is probably necessary, combined with a thorough knowledge of occupational health and safety issues. Such interdisciplinary studies are rather rare. A third possibility is that women are primarily studied by women researchers, who might receive few grants from the IRSST. An analysis of grants by sex of the principal investigator (Table 4) shows that only 18% of principal investigators (PIs) are women, and that they are more likely than male PIs to study mixed or female sectors and professions. Still, half of their studies involve predominantly male populations, and no evidence suggests that they receive smaller grants than their male counterparts. Studies by women PIs, especially of female populations, are concentrated in the themes of musculoskeletal disorders and accidents, reinforcing the idea that it is the choice of themes rather than any specific discriminatory practice that leads to the fact that women are understudied.
We next consider the reason for the choice of themes, by comparing IRSST and CSST practices with those of sister organizations in Ontario. At the time of the report, there were many more women on the relevant Ontario boards of directors than in Québec, and research themes supported were much more inclusive in Ontario. For example, women’s occupational health was specifically considered and there were studies of stress and of employment schedules. It is possible, however, that the range of Ontario research themes may be broader because the Ontario compensation commission is more loosely linked with the research function than is the case in Québec. IRSST and CSST share a board of directors and it may be that the CSST is reluctant to sponsor research that has the potential of enlarging the scope of compensation by legitimizing new health concerns. We suggest that, if so, this may be an unwise and short-sighted approach, given the current trends in Québec workplaces. We suggest that it would be important to study the sexual division of labour and its effects on health, in order to prevent illness and injury to workers of both sexes.
JEL Classification: J16, J28
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation