Paying attention to freedom

Waterloo Engineering alumni and a student reflect on the Montreal Massacre

By Charlotte Danby Faculty of Engineering

It has been 33 years since a gunman shot and killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique de Montréal on December 6, 1989. Below, two Waterloo Engineering alumni and a current student reflect on what the attack continues to mean for them as women in engineering.

’We must never grow complacent’

Sandra Ketchen (BASc ’92, chemical engineering) is the President and CEO at Spectrum Health Care. She was the same age and studying the same engineering program as many of the Montreal Massacre victims and remembers the horror and grief of that day vividly.

I was on a co-op work term when I heard about the shooting.

I couldn’t believe that 14 women were killed because they were female students, 12 of whom were studying engineering.

For the first time in my young life, I realized the extent of evil and cruelty that exist in the world. Horrific is the word that still comes to mind - it was a very emotional time.

I was lucky to grow up in a family that encouraged me to become whatever I wanted to be. Being good at maths and science, I decided to study engineering like my older brother. Today, more young women are choosing to study engineering, challenging the traditional status quo with some much-needed diversity.

Women make great engineers and so do men. Men make great nurses and so do women. Whatever the profession, everyone deserves the freedom to choose how to use their talents, decide who and what they want to be, and pursue their passions. More pragmatically, research shows that encouraging different ways of thinking and approaching problems delivers better outcomes at work.

Let the important memory of the 14 women killed 33 years ago remind us that we must never grow complacent, that we must pay attention to fostering diversity and inclusion and continue to strive for greater equity - for all - in our profession.

’I feel strongly about the need for women to support women’

Jodi Menezes (BASc ’13, chemical engineering), works in medical device sales at Johnson & Johnson. She first learned about the Montreal Massacre in her first year at Waterloo.

There was - and still is - a lot of righteous sadness, anger and frustration on this anniversary. For me, it calls to mind all the women all over the world who have lost their lives to or experience gender-based violence.

Three decades later, from abortion bans in the United States to state violence in Iran, women are still being punished for the choices they make.

We’re doing much better at encouraging women to study engineering but I question if we are doing enough to facilitate their success in the workplace. Across professions, employers in industry, government and academia are actively recruiting women to meet their diversity targets but many are struggling to retain them.

This leaky pipeline problem exists primarily because women still carry the burden of domestic care work. To see more women hold senior management positions, employers need to do better at understanding women’s social and familial responsibilities and provide practical support, like equal pay, subsidized, on-site daycare and proper paternity leave.

I also feel strongly about the need for women to support women. Nobody gets ahead without help. We need to open our networks, share advice and celebrate each other’s successes. What better way to revere and remember all the women who have been punished for their choices than by working together to protect our freedoms.

’When we have champions, we’re more likely to excel’

Nusayba Sultana is a fourth-year chemical engineering student at Waterloo. She remembers feeling shocked when she first heard about the Montreal Massacre and learned that its antifeminist motivation was downplayed in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

I first heard about the Montreal Massacre at school. I read up on it and was impressed by the feminist voices at the time that called for the attack to be viewed through an antifeminist lens.

Thanks to them, the mass shooting is very much remembered as an attack on women, which is important.

So much has changed for the better over the past three decades. By the time I was in high school, there was a big push for women to do STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. My teachers encouraged me to study engineering, so I looked into the field and was attracted by its potential to do work that delivers a positive social impact.  

The number of women engineers is growing but the field itself hasn’t quite caught up, yet. Take safety boots and other personal protective equipment, for example - there are so many options to fit a range of men’s sizes, but not so for women.

Women engineers belong. We deserve to be here. Our designs, innovations and solutions add balance to the world by providing an alternative perspective. But when the boots don’t fit, we might doubt that we fit. I truly believe that our confidence will grow as our voices unite. There is strength in solidarity.

I am grateful to all the people whose efforts and attention have given me and my generation more freedom, more choice. But we still have a lot of work to do - gender-based violence is a very real threat in many people’s lives and workplace discrimination still exists.

I love being a woman, and an engineer, with all its challenges. I know first-hand that when we have champions, we’re more likely to excel. I want to be a champion for future generations of engineers - and work with people who are making society a better place for everyone.

Go to Recognizing women engineers for Dean Mary Wells’ reflection on the Montreal Massacre and the need for women in engineering.