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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2001

Engineering Profession Working for Change in Wake of Dec. 6 Tragedy

Vera Golini
Twelve years have passed. Twelve times have Canadians mournfully remembered the date of Dec. 6, 1989 when at École Polytechnique, the University of Montreal's engineering school, 14 young women were massacred because they were women.

The mad gunman, as a youth barred from enlisting in the armed forces, had been refused admission by the school. Before taking his own life he blamed his rejection on "the feminists who have ruined my life." The world witnessed for the first time in Canada, the ugly and unforgettable face of terror rampaging in the halls of academia.

This year our remembrance of the 14 women is all the more poignant because the terror and carnage of Sept. 11, 2001 are also painfully alive in our hearts and collective consciousness. In response to tragedy, we often witness how the human spirit faces adversity with courage and hope. In this context, and with the permission of the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, it is encouraging to relate some of the findings presented at the Prairie Conference on Women in Science and Engineering held recently in Calgary. In a paper titled "Are We Retaining Women in Engineering Programs and the Engineering Profession?" engineers Karen Martinson, Elizabeth Cannon and Deborah Wolfe examined the statistics for the past 25 years and outlined plans to ensure and foster continued participation of women in the engineering profession in Canada.

In 1975, only 4 per cent of our undergraduate engineering students were women, compared to 20 per cent by the year 2000. Notably, the greatest increase in women's participation occurred during the five-year period following the Dec. 6 tragedy. Of potentially greater significance, women remain in engineering programs as often, if not more often than men once they are in university. A breakdown of the engineering profession reveals that some areas, such as chemical and environmental engineering, currently include more than 40 per cent of female undergraduates while electrical and computer engineering enrol relatively few women.

At the graduate level women now account for almost 25 per cent of the masters students, and 17 per cent of total doctoral candidates. While this continual climb in female enrolment is highly encouraging, considerable effort is currently underway to further accelerate the rate of change.

The Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, through its Canadian Engineering Resources Board and its Women in Engineering Committee, has created a policy and national action plan to encourage women to enter and remain in the engineering profession. This highly insightful strategy includes a wide range of initiatives designed to impact at various academic levels up to PhD, and into the workplace. It considers the importance of including women as role models, mentoring and making girls aware of engineering as a career option.

Other features include guidelines on workplace behaviour and ethics, a flexible work environment, workshop programs for women, equity issues, changes in the university curriculum and best practices to encourage participation.

Engineering has changed since 1989, and the present initiatives are designed to further accelerate the expansion in opportunities for women in the profession. The core of the policy on Women in Engineering formulated by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers is: "The engineering profession supports principles of fairness and equity in all aspects of engineering culture, practice and education. Diversity in the engineering profession, which is reflective of Canadian society, enhances our profession and society-at-large." This concise and eloquent statement has far greater impact than a madman with a gun.

Vera Golini is a member of CAUT's Status of Women Committee and Director of the Women's Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.

Information on the engineering study can be obtained from Karen Martinson (