A Day to Commemorate Women in Engineering

December 6, 2011

Today marks the solemn anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. Twenty-two years ago, Canada witnessed its worst mass murder at the École Polytechnique, an engineering school in Montréal. It was a calculated, coordinated hate crime against women. The man behind the gun that killed 14 women did not like progress and he did not like women studying engineering. The note he left behind cited his anger towards women seeking non-traditional professions.

The tragic event jolted Canadians.  It propelled so many of us to re-examine the challenges facing women seeking economic and social equality. We could no longer sit idle. The nation-wide reaction to the events prompted action.  It was a catalyst for change in many respects.

For me, December 6 is a day to reflect on how far we’ve come and to take note on how far we still have to go. Today, more young women sit in engineering studies classrooms and while  it is more the norm to see women working and leading in engineering, we are still not yet seeing  equal enrolment in engineering at universities and colleges. Currently, women still only represent less than 20 percent of the undergraduate engineering programs in Canada.  And, the reality in the professional arena is that women only occupy one in five jobs in science, technology and engineering.

On this anniversary, the slogan for the L’Oréal/UNESCO For Women in Science Program is front and centre in my thoughts and my work: “the world needs science and science needs women.” I recently had the honour of introducing the mentoring fellowship winners at the 9th annual L’Oréal / UNESCO awards honouring extraordinary women in science. Without hesitation, I reminded the crowd that we can’t possibly achieve our full scientific potential and compete properly in a global economy without the equal and full voice of women.

The women awarded that evening will act as mentors in Actua’s National Girls Program. With their help, we will increase the number of young girls thinking about careers in science and engineering. Through our Girls’ Clubs across Canada we deliver science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities designed to ignite a love for learning.  We boost girls’ confidence with knowledge and give them the tools to think critically and creatively. Through these programs, I’ve witnessed girls see science in a whole new light. We connect them with role models and mentors who eagerly share their own stories of breaking barriers and overcoming professional pressures. We want girls to see a career in science and engineering as a reality and something within arm’s reach.

By empowering young girls with relevant STEM enrichment experiences, we want to shift the gender demographics of engineering graduates. But there is still much work to do. Along with making science fun, we also need to drive girls to see through the obstacles that may stand in their way.

Of the 14 women killed 22 years ago, 12 were engineering students. They would be in their 40’s and 50’s today. They would be engineers. Leaders in their field. Mentors to the next generation of engineering students. Today, I think of them and of the talent we lost. This only affirms what Actua does in supporting our female talent of tomorrow.