Breadcrumb Trail Links
It has been 34 years since the mass murder at École Polytechnique de Montréal. The incident was horrific, where 14 women were murdered, and 10 additional women and four men were wounded.
I was in my last year of engineering at the University of Alberta. There were only seven female engineering students in my class of about 60 in chemical engineering. The ratio for all of engineering was significantly lower than in my discipline. I was seemingly unaware of misogynism at the time. I rationalized to myself that Lady Godiva’s antics were a tradition in engineering, and I should ignore it and continue my studies.
The challenges from my professors in class were merely singling me out because I was a novelty, and well, they were in their late 60s and from another era. I had no female instructors in engineering. One female student in mechanical engineering had horrible taunts and was nicknamed by the male students as “dirty knees.” I kept my head down and kept studying. The trauma that happened on Dec. 6, 1989, brought all of this into another focus for me. I started to see the bias, the misogynism, the systems that allow one gender to flourish in STEM while limiting another.
After graduation, I would like to say that life was more manageable, but it was not. In my first role as an engineer with a highly established Tier 1 oil and gas company, I was ridiculed, called very crude names, and placed in a highly hostile work environment. Nude posters of women surrounded the control room. I couldn’t access a woman’s washroom in my place of work because they had previously converted it to a shower for the men.
So, my trips to the loo involved ensuring that the shower room was not in use, placing a two-foot by one-foot metal sign on the door saying “Women’s washroom – in use” in neon orange and bolting the door shut. The single stall in the “women’s washroom” had graffiti targeted to me by name. The entire control room knew when I had to tinkle, as the large neon sign was on the door.
My subsequent career demonstrated a difference in pay with my peers, again from another Tier 1 oil and gas company. This same oil and gas company, when I left, gave me a penis-shaped gift on my departure. The next Tier 2 (at the time) oil and gas company provided me with several male mentors, but the atmosphere was rife with rumours of physical assaults on women in elevators. A male peer followed me to my hotel room during one offsite conference, pounding on my door for access.
None of these are at the trauma level of the Montreal Massacre. These are small-T traumas that still add up to have a personal impact. I now own and manage a consulting company in renewable energy, and I focus on having a safe workplace for all its employees and washrooms for all genders. Here, gender, race, or religion do not impact pay or opportunities.
In my role as president, I am not immune from misogyny. Some prefer to hear the same message from a male instead of myself. I’m overlooked for opportunities. I’ve had male counterparts insult me in industry meetings. Few peers have intervened. I am thankful for those that have.
My daughter is now in her first year of engineering. My father was an engineer, which makes her a third-generation engineer. She’s only been there 14 weeks and already has experienced being a gender minority. She said that she has been either hit on or patronized by her male peers. She wants to keep her head down and study. She has some female instructors for whom she is thankful.
I speak up now. I have the confidence of 34 years of experience, and I know that when you are early in your career, it is risky to speak up. I ask the industry associates to ensure that speaker panels are representative. I hope that this newest generation has fewer little-T traumas and that our education institutions provide support to all women and marginalized genders.
Direct training is required for all. Understanding discrimination, what it is, what it isn’t, what the options for support are, how to defend yourself, and what the role of the bystander is.
It’s been 34 years, are we there yet? I am trying to make a difference from where I stand. I will intervene.
Paula McGarrigle is a professional engineer and lives in Calgary. She has two children and a dog called Stanford.
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