Thirty years ago 14 women in engineering were murdered in their classroom because a man hated feminists. I learned about the École Polytechnique massacre in my first year of engineering undergraduate studies because they needed women volunteers to place roses at the memorial. I did not learn about it in our “Introduction to Engineering Class,” nor were those women named in the iron ring ceremony years later when I was sworn in among the “sons” and “brothers” of engineering in Canada.
Rather, to commemorate this memorial day, groups already working to end violence against women hold events, ceremonies and write endless articles on the statistics of murdered women in Canada. Fellow women in STEM may share our stories, and the faces and names of those women who were so unfairly taken from their futures – but it is hard to know if we are getting anywhere. I cannot speak to what misogyny felt like thirty years ago to tell if it’s been reduced, but I can tell you that being confronted by a furious man who hates you because of his broader hatred of women and feminists is something very present still today.
In my undergraduate they stressed the importance of group projects to improve an “engineer’s ability to work with people,” which meant that in every class I had to learn how to act to have safety, respect, and try to get my projects done in spite of potential issues from often being the only woman in the group.
Some group projects failed. Due to an inability for a male partner to follow an idea that I worked closely to design, he erased our entire progress the day the report was due and forced the group to start over with his idea.
Often, I was given the research and writing portions – letting the “more capable men” in the group handle the calculations. One group member was so insistent that he did not need my help with the calculations that he forgot to submit them with our report.
Some were more obvious, telling me they hated me and asking me why I “was so stupid.” I looked around the lab full of men – and saw them waiting for me to answer, as if it was a legitimate question.
Twice, I had men tell me to my face that women deserved to get raped because of what they wore. One was a friend explaining it to me as if it would be helpful information in my own clothing choices, and the other used it as a punchline to tease the woman who wore her PJ’s to the laundromat.
Some men go out of their way to tell me they think sexism is bad (congrats on the big realization bro), but then physically touch my sides, arms and hug me too long at work – asking to hang out on the phone number they got from a school project.
“I hope you die. And I hope you die on your period so that your family is disgraced,” the man in the next seat whispered to me just before the exam announcer told us we had two hours to complete our test. I spent those hours alternating between trying to remember what a FCC crystalline structure looked like, and whether or not this guy was serious. Why did I sit so far from the exits? Would any of the people in this room defend me?
These experiences are what made me a feminist. Witnessing the global hatred, mistreatment, and silencing of women just trying to live independently and free are what made me an activist.
As I have gained confidence to defend myself, to argue and to try and change things – I have become friends with a few good men in engineering. But they still leave the fighting to me.
I value these relationships deeply, and could not have survived engineering without the friends I gained. But I still have them advise me “not to get mad” about sexism in STEM. That it’s not that bad for women actually.
I would love to not be mad, to not be an activist, to just do my work.
But of course this is a luxury women still do not have – especially not in the field of mechanical engineering. My day at work today is still only 30 years from the massacre of women like me, only 41 years from when employers were allowed to fire women for being pregnant, only 55 years from when women were allowed to open a bank account without their husband’s signature, and only 1 year from the murder of 10 innocent people in my neighbourhood by a man who hated women. The lack of women in my field means that everything in my career will in some way be described or affected by my gender – for good and bad. I cannot simply study, I have to study as a representative, a mentor, or an adversary to some. And the real tragedy is that there are many many more who have it much worse than me.
Are men having the conversations among themselves about ending violence against women? Do men understand the unstable place of an outsider in their field, and are they willing to change to make that person welcome and included? Are white women able to acknowledge our own place of victim and privilege in feminism, to make way for voices of experience more knowledgable than ours?
After sharing our Me Too stories, dragging our souls through our trauma to try and push for social change – have we any other tool to use?
I have more questions than answers, and I will continue learning from those who know more than I do about this. Today, all I can offer is sad, sobbing love to those in the world struggling to exist in the face of hatred.
To my friends in this field with me, dealing with worse and better than I have – I am so proud of you. If you leave, stay, change it or keep it the same, you have helped.
To my friends who have suffered violence and abuse – I am so proud of you. If you leave, stay, change it or keep it the same, you have helped.
To the men who are not yet realizing that it is in their power to change other men, who are not yet learning about experiences of struggle they may never have, who find it hard to listen to the world described from a position they may never stand in – you must help. You cannot leave yourself unchanged by the facts of today.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”