Thirty years ago, I was a teenaged girl with a choice to make when a man killed 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montréal.
The women were innocent. The killer was angry that these “feminists” were in engineering school and he was not.
Before that horrific day, I had been on the fence about what to study in university: science or engineering. After the terrible events in Montréal, I was angry. I decided then and there that I was going to be an engineer. I would prove that women deserve a place in engineering because they are every bit as smart and capable as any man.
I’m proud that I did, but I’ve run quite an obstacle course.
While things are somewhat easier today than they were then, several major barriers still exist.
Women don’t choose engineering because they are concerned it won’t reflect their values or self-image. Women leave engineering at higher rates than men because they experience old-fashioned workplace structures and attitudes. And, sadly, women continue to be harassed at work.
Exhaustion drives women out
I’ve experienced some of these things myself. As an undergraduate student, I worked at a series of co-op placements, where I learned that what drives women out of engineering is not one major aggression, but an exhausting succession of unfortunate and irritating events.
I remember when one supervisor gave me a third unwelcome hug. I stopped him by telling him it made me uncomfortable. I was proud of myself, and only later realized he stopped giving me interesting projects.
I remember a male colleague openly describing to other men in the plant how he fantasized about seeing me strip at his desk. I told him he should be so lucky, and everyone laughed.
I remember feeling isolated, overlooked and patronized, and for the longest time, I thought it was just me.
I believed these experiences were par for the course, and I no longer wanted to play.
After graduating from engineering, my interest in science was rekindled and I earned a master’s degree in plant biology. This gave me an opportunity to pursue another passion and turn my back on the hyper-masculine culture of engineering. I’m glad I did, but I ultimately missed the focus on applying science to real world problems.
I returned to engineering and completed my PhD in biomedical engineering, and today I am proud to be an engineering professor at McMaster University, and to have the chance not just to teach engineering, but to shape perceptions about who belongs in our field, and how we should teach, learn and work.
I’m grateful for my supportive parents and loving family — and for those who have encouraged me professionally: these are the people who make me resilient.
Now, I know there is evidence that I wasn’t alone in my experiences or in being nudged out of engineering, and that in itself gives me strength.
Engineers solve tough problems. That is a proud tradition and a noble calling. Through a blend of creativity and communication, skills and science, we get the job done.
Gender diversity a boon
Almost all the young women and men I teach today were born after what we now call the Montréal Massacre. I worry they may have grown up without a good understanding of what happened and why.
I feel compelled, like many other women and men in my profession, to build on the progress we have made since 1989, and to continue to shape engineering into a field characterized by balance and inclusivity, where everyone welcomes everyone else to the table, and where only skill and caring determine success.
Progress will not happen on its own. We must take up the task. That’s why I now chair the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering, where we share strength and energy and inspire the next generation of girls to consider engineering. It’s why I teach an undergraduate class called Inclusion in the Engineering Workplace. It’s why I try very conscientiously to set an example and encourage others to do the same.
Engineering is in a better place than in 1989. At McMaster, our incoming class is 35 per cent women. Academic administrators and managers want to hire female engineers. Women are more likely to complete engineering degrees than men — and earn nearly what men do. But there’s still work to do.
Calls to action
Here are my calls to action to ensure engineering becomes increasingly diverse:
- Refocus math and science classes to solve interesting and important real-world problems.
- Encourage girls to take high school physics — a key engineering prerequisite.
- Be intentional in hiring. Insist the candidate short list includes at least two qualified women.
- Create culture change. Put more than one woman on a team to maximize productivity; invite women to collaborate on high-profile projects; seek and highlight women’s expertise; include women on panels and presentations; and include women socially.
- Support parental leave and flex time.
- Teach your own children that engineering is for everyone.
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