Twenty-three years ago today, a national tragedy occurred in Montreal. In case you don’t recall:
“On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lepine entered Ecole Polytechnique, a Montreal-based engineering school, separated the men from the women and then shot and killed 14 female students. He also injured nine other women and four men, before turning the gun on himself. Lepine left a note blaming feminists for ruining his life.” from ctvnews.ca
Before I was an engineer
I was not quite a teenager at the time, but I remember my mother’s reaction; that it was a hateful and cowardly act by a deranged, angry man who hated women. Years later when I became an engineer, the incident took on new significance; these women could have been my classmates. We were only one decade, and one Canadian province, apart.
These 14 female engineering students were picked out because their choice of program made them feminists, in Marc Lepine’s mind, and he resented them for taking a spot that should have been his. He had applied to Ecole Polytechnique twice and been rejected because he lacked two course pre-requisites.
A national Rorschach test
To this day much angry debate carries on about whether female engineers are uniquely qualified to ‘claim’ the effects of the so-called Montreal Massacre, or whether it is better viewed as part of a wider symptom of all violence against all women. Or is it about feminism? Or is it about gun control? Or the fact he was raised by a single mother? Everyone seems to have their own lens on the incident, and their own opinion on what to do in response.
A faulty logic chain
My own take: One man’s faulty logic said that he had been victimized, so he acted to even the score in an unthinkable way. His logic went: I did not get what I want + Women did get what I want = Women are to blame for me not getting what I want. I hate not getting what I want = I hate women.
Had even one piece of that logic chain been dislodged, he may have stayed home that day. We might have those women in our boardrooms, factories, design studios, schools, courtrooms. As it is, we’ll never know what they might have done.
What I’d have said
When I think about what went through his mind that day, or in the days and weeks before, I wish I’d been able to tell him three things:
1) When one door closes, another door opens. If you really want to be an engineer, get the courses, and apply again next year. Lots of people have difficult in academic settings then go on to thrive in their profession; myself included. Or maybe check out a related career: a trade, a technology profession, a technician discipline or a drafting or design-related career; lots of overlap with engineers in terms of skills and opportunities. Engineering is no ‘better’ than any other profession, and it’s not for everyone.
2) It’s a really good thing that there are women in engineering. Women bring a diversity of thought, approach and strength to the profession that allows its benefits to reach more people. Teams work better with women on them. Many women engineers become excellent mentors and helpers to peers, male and female. The same argument can be made for more visible minorities and new immigrants since they bring a perspective through their life experience. Also, they make things much more interesting and vibrant!
3) There is more than enough space – for both genders – within our profession. There are lots of opportunities and tons of work to do. No need to fear women entering the profession because there is actually a shortage of engineers globally. As the planet nears seven billion people and technology continues to change the way we live, work and connect to each other, we need more smart, divergent thinkers to solve ever more complicated problems.
Whether it’s designing gear for the next space mission to Mars, making companies work smarter, faster, cleaner and safer, or breaking down systemic issues that keep billions living in poverty, there is lots of work to do.
And, if I may be permitted to add in one last more defiant personal observation: we women engineers are tough. We may leave the profession to raise babies, go to law school, volunteer, and start our own businesses, but we will never stop being engineers in response to hate and fear.
That’s just not what we’re made of.