Inspired Action is Fuel for Equity in Academia

In July 2022, our team of graduate students and faculty from the School of Psychology were honoured to publish an article titled, “Increasing the Representation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) as Students in Psychology Doctoral Programs”. The article provides

  1. a review of common admissions processes used by psychology graduate programs across Canada,
  2. evidence of how systemic racism is interwoven within these processes, and
  3. provide functional directions (e.g., policies and procedures) to replace practices and reduce barriers to higher education overall.

team picture of Dana Strauss, Fatou Sarr and Sommer Knight

Team picture, from left to right: Dana Strauss, Fatou Sarr and Sommer Knight.

As academics, we chose to contribute to the movements of justice for BIPOC persons by using research to illuminating fair and accessible admissions processes. In describing the developmental journey of this article to you, an audience composed of academics and researchers, I hope to provide a visualization of what creating meaningful equity in higher education can look like.

The inspiration for the article arose from the direct questioning of our own graduate psychology program’s capacity to address, support, and proactively reduce the ongoing traumas experienced by racialized (i.e., BIPOC) communities. With waves of crises from systemic racism compounding one another (e.g., police brutality1, healthcare inequities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic2,3), today’s psychology programs must be able to train researchers and clinicians that are able to respond to effectively dismantle systemic racism. To ensure that our programs were producing an effective psychological workforce, we began examining our own programs and procedures, dismantle, and replace any that are found to perpetuate racism. 

A key area of concern raised by our own student body, alongside students and faculty across Canada4,5 was the lack of racial diversity within Canadian psychology graduate programs. For example, in the Canadian Psychology Association’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report (TRC), it was estimated that “there are likely fewer than twelve Indigenous practicing and or teaching psychologists in Canada” (CPA, 2018, p. 256). This means that out of the 19,103 clinicians in Canada (Canadian Institute for Health Information, 20207), only 0.0006% are Indigenous. With Indigenous Peoples representing 5% of the Canadian population, this statistic appallingly low.

Racial diversity is an essential component of an effective psychology program for several reasons such as expanding pedagogy, innovation, and providing relevant sociocultural research and applications. To understand why there was a lack of racial diversity within our program, we investigated the impacts of systemic racism on our current admissions procedures. Like other university programs, to determine which students should enter the programs, our admissions processes use meritocracy-based assessments. Meritocracy is the ideology that using measures that are objective (e.g., grade-point average (GPA), standardized tests) allows programs to evaluate students fairly and without bias8. However, research has shown that that systemic racism negatively impacts school performance (e.g., GPA)9,10 and that standardized testing is not consistent across ethnic groups11. Therefore, the idea that these measures are objective and that each student has access to a fair evaluation is a flawed premise. As such, admissions process dependent on merit-based assessments are likely admitting less racialized students who are not being objectively evaluated. By seeking to understand how systemic racism interacts in our admissions processes, we hoped to identify remove barriers to our psychology graduate programs. We predicted that in removing systemic barriers, we would increase the ability of racialized students to move through our admissions processes successfully and observe increased racial diversity in future cohorts. Second, we also sought to apply solutions being used by other Canadian psychology graduate programs to further reduce systemic racism within our admissions processes and programs. 

Overall, the original deliverable was to produce an internal report for the School of Psychology. However, when comparing our admissions processes to other Canadian universities, it was quickly revealed psychology graduate programs across Canada were using similar admissions processes. Although the admissions processes varied slightly between programs, they were largely composed of the following strategies:

  1. assessments based on merit (i.e., cumulative averages, standardized test scores),
  2. assessments related to success in research (e.g., conferences and publications),
  3. and assessments based on fit for the program (e.g., interviews)12.
Therefore, if our investigation revealed that systemic racism was present within our admissions criteria, it meant that systemic racism was present within the admissions processes on a National level. Given the potential impacts of our findings, our team then decided unanimously that publishing our findings as a scientific paper would be the most effective vehicle of knowledge to facilitate changes across Canadian graduate programs.

As hypothesized, our review of the impacts of systemic racism on common admissions criteria revealed evidence of systemic racism within our graduate admissions processes, and consequently programs across Canada. Towards resolving these barriers, we have implemented many changes to our admissions processes. We will continue to use our publicly available admissions grid, which allows for transparency and accessibility of our procedures. Related to assessments, we have removed and modified several criteria that were impacted by systemic racism12; but we still working towards finding fair measures of academic performance outside of those based on merit (i.e., GPA). We found that prior to any initiatives, successful programs should determine, publicly announce, and regularly evaluate their commitments to equity, diversity and inclusion. For example, using population statistics as a guide for representation (e.g., racialized persons are 30% of the Canadian population12) and collecting diversity data can ensure that admissions processes are effective for the equity groups in question. Simultaneously, commitments to fair representation can be achieved by holding space for a number of candidates, such as a BIPOC pool that reserves spaces for students13,14. As of the 2022 Fall semester, our program has adopted several of these policies to reduce the impacts of systemic racism such as scholarships for racialized students, and strategies to increase the competency of our programs, such as more equity, diversity, and inclusion-based topics, workshops, and courses.

Motivated by the present tragedies and ongoing protests by BIPOC persons, our team has and continues to towards dismantling barriers to graduate education upheld by racism. Bearing witness, experiencing adversity, and choosing to move forward with action were key components to inspired actions that led to the success of this research. As lead author, I witnessed our faculty and students work together where humility, openness, and vulnerability facilitated the creation of new systems for equity. Furthermore, we have now developed standards of operating such as student and faculty committees, who are dedicated to providing direction as our programs expand in their capacity to serve all Canadians. Through compassion, conversations that were initially uncertain and uncomfortable revealed a shared excitement for change and diversity: changes in thought, diversity in conversation and pedagogy, and the creation of better psychological tools. Our attention towards the inclusion of racialized communities continues to fulfill the vision of an accessible and creative educational environment, where our diversity is our greatest resource for success.


  1. Carmichael, J. T., & Kent, S. L. (2015). The use of lethal force by Canadian police officers: Assessing the influence of female police officers and minority threat explanations on police shootings across large cities. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(4), 703-721. 10.1007/s12103-014-9283-1    
  2. Amoako, J., & MacEachen, E. (2021). Understanding the blended impacts of COVID-19 and systemic inequalities on sub-Saharan African immigrants in Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 112, 862–866.
  3. Cénat, J. M., Hajizadeh, S., Dalexis, R. D., Ndengeyingoma, A., Guerrier, M., & Kogan, C. (2021). Prevalence and effects of daily and major experiences of racial discrimination and microaggressions among Black individuals in Canada. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1-29.  
  4. Ebdallah, A., Keri, M. I., Mohamud, M., & Nwaroh, C. (2020). Calls to Action to Address Institutionalized Racism in Medical Education and Health Care.
  5. Students for Systemic Transformation and Equity in Psychology [SSTEP]. (2020). Time to SSTEP Forward: Recommendations to Promote Anti-Racist Clinical Practice. Psynopsis, 42(4),14.
  6. Canadian Institute for Health Information. (2020). Canada’s health care providers.     
  7. Canadian Psychological Association. (2018). Psychology’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report. The Psychology Foundation of Canada.  
  8. McNamee, S. J., & Miller, R. K. (2009). The meritocracy myth. Rowman & Littlefield.
  9. Salter, P. S., Adams, G., & Perez, M. J. (2018). Racism in the Structure of Everyday Worlds: A Cultural-Psychological Perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(3), 150–155.   
  10. Neville, H. A., Gallardo, M. E., & Sue, D. W. (2016). The myth of racial color blindness: Manifestations, dynamics, and impact. American Psychological Association.
  11. Callahan, J. L., Smotherman, J. M., Dziurzynski, K. E., Love, P. K., Kilmer, E. D., Niemann, Y. F., & Ruggero, C. J. (2018). Diversity in the professional psychology training-to-workforce pipeline: Results from doctoral psychology student population data. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 12(4), 273–285.  
  12. Sarr, F., Knight, S., Strauss, D., Ouimet, A. J., Cénat, J., Williams, M.T., & Shaughnessy K. (2021). Increasing the Representation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour as Students in Psychology Doctoral Programs. Accepted manuscript to the Journal of Canadian Psychology. ID: CAP-2021-0522. Peer Reviewed
  13. University of Manitoba. (2022). Admissions. 
  14. University of Toronto. (2021b). Black Student Application Program.

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