Remember 30: Inherited legacy

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’ reflections on the lessons that still echo – and even on those lessons still ignored – three decades out from that tragic day.

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We weren’t alive 30 years ago, but we recognize that we have inherited the legacy of Dec. 6, 1989, all the same. And for us, that legacy has been mostly a positive one: we are accepted as engineering students who are women and are welcomed as ambassadors to girls and other young women who aspire to pursue engineering.

True, we are a minority in our classes – and occasionally even a curiosity to acquaintances – but we owe much to Western Engineering’s commitment to diversity and equality. We have grown from the experiences of the past and we understand that puts us in a place of privilege. It’s what makes remembering Dec. 6 so important every year and it’s why we continue to attend this sombre vigil: understanding that we as a society haven’t ‘moved on’ from those events, we have learned from them.

But we aren’t ‘there’ yet. On average, the male-to-female ratio in our classes is about 4-to-1.

Out of all the classes we have taken, just two were led by female professors. During our recruiting processes, we have also noticed that most of the internship recruiters we see are women (in human resources fields), while most of the firms’ engineering managers (the people we will be working with and for) are men. That’s understandable, because only recently have women been gaining a foothold in senior engineering positions – but it is still a noticeable and notable gender imbalance.

So why is it important to encourage more women to pursue engineering? Because everyone brings their own experiences and perspectives to their work. The greater the diversity of that experience and perspective, the stronger our projects and profession will be, for women and men alike.

The Western Women in Engineering club at Western offers key supports to female students. It includes mentorship, networking, academic support, social events, professional development, friendship and leadership opportunities. We also facilitate a mentorship program, Big Sister Little Sister, and provide support to women in first-year engineering. These efforts are really important as we work to make sure every young woman who comes to Western Engineering, or who is thinking about it, knows they are valued.

We also do a lot of outreach events for young women who are considering pursuing engineering at Western. When we speak with girls as young as 7 years old about careers in engineering, we love to see how excited they are about sciences and math.

These are kids who, in 10 years, we hope to see here at Western. In 10 years, we also want it to be more normalized for women to go into engineering and other male-dominated fields. We sometimes hear, ‘Oh, it’s so brave of you to go into engineering.’

It’s not ‘brave’ – it’s just a matter of us pursuing our passion.

We recognize that even as we have become models to young girls, we also need more female role models at the university and in the industry.

Thirty years ago, female engineering students were a rarity. With the support of Western Engineering and our peers and mentors, we’re helping change the norm. We believe one of the best ways to honour the previous generation of female engineering students – including those who were affected by École Polytechnique – is to build and support the next generation of women in engineering.

Bailey Thompson is a third-year Electrical Engineering student at Western and Vice-President of the Western Women in Engineering student club. Jules Thomas is a third-year student pursuing a dual degree in Civil Engineering and Ivey Business and is Outreach Director of Western Women in Engineering.