Remember 30: Equity leaders

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of pieces commemorating the 30th anniversary of the École Polytechnique murders. Read other Western community members reflect on the lessons that still echo – and even on those still ignored – three decades out from that tragic day.

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When I think about Dec. 6, 1989, I remember the feelings of that day – the shock and the horror that grew with each image and story that began to emerge. My colleagues and I quickly began talking about what we could do to support engineering faculty in Montreal and, just as importantly, how we could be available for our own students and work towards a safe and fully inclusive campus.

Dec. 6 was a pivot point in those conversations.

Within engineering, it galvanized us to start thinking much more deeply about how to create an environment free of harassment. More than that, we needed to build institutions where young women would be encouraged to choose the profession; an academic environment where there were more women faculty; and an alumni network of professionals who would be role models.

Organizations such as the Ontario Network for Women in Engineering, Engineers Canada and the Ontario Society for Professional Engineers have shown great leadership in this area, from outreach that encourages elementary school girls in STEM right through to women and men who are already in the profession.

The generous Hasenfratz/Newton/Linamar gift to Western is a great example of working to create and invest in this kind of environment – getting women to look at engineering and business as a career path and also linking to the advanced manufacturing sector where women are under-represented.

It is part of an entire pathway in which we need to provide early, consistent messages about the opportunities open to women and young people in general – that they should choose what they enjoy and what they’re good at, rather than being streamed into others’ pre-conceived notions of where they should go.

Beyond Engineering, there are a number of career paths where women are not represented equitably, in industry or in governments or in leadership on boards of directors, for example.

And that’s also why it’s important that Western, and other postsecondary institutions, not only reflect but lead this change. Within the university sector, I would point to our equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives spurred on by the Canada Research Chairs and the Dimensions initiative that’s come through the Tri-Council funding agencies, among others. I’m proud of the concerted efforts taking place by student groups, Student Experience, Faculty Relations and Human Resources.

I’ve seen, over the past 30 years, the culture has changed both in education and in the workplace. Behaviours at one time that would barely have caused a shrug are now called out as unacceptable, and rightly so.

As much as things have shifted – too slowly, but at least in the right direction – there is still much to be done.

While the percentage of women students in Engineering has increased, we are looking to improve the representation even more. I was reminded in a recent conversation with a student who said it’s also important not just to think of women in Engineering as a proportion of the student population but to think of them as individuals and consider their individual aspirations, possibilities, life journeys and life stories.

There are many opportunities for us as a learning community to remember these individual stories as we work to be more supportive of one another and grow more aware of the behaviours and policies that support inclusivity.

We also need to do more to engage male students to be champions for change – because it’s not just about the women students, it’s about making the whole environment welcoming for all.

Thirty years from now, my hope is that there be no more disparity in areas where women are now under-represented, and that we will also have lifted up Indigenous people, visible minorities, LGBTQ+ and other groups looking for equitable education and career opportunities.

We need to keep our eyes up and looking forward.

We also need to remember. If you walk past the Spencer Engineering Building, you will see a plaque and magnolia trees that honour the lives of these young women – 15 names and 15 trees, including that of Western Engineering student Lynda Shaw who tragically lost her life when she was targeted in her travels, only a few months after the Montreal shootings.

It’s a daily reminder for those who take the time to remember. And when those trees flower each year, it’s also a sign to me of hope: hope that we can do better, should do better, will do better.

Andrew Hrymak is Provost and Vice-President (Academic) at Western and former Dean of Engineering, and details how Dec. 6 led to greater university emphasis on inclusion and support for women in Engineering and other disciplines.