How the Montreal Massacre convinced McMaster prof. Kim Jones to become an engineer

Kim Jones was in her final year of high school and torn between pursuing a career in engineering and science when a gunman opened fire at École Polytechnique de Montréal, killing 14 women.

30th anniversary of the shooting was commemorated at McMaster Friday evening

Attendees of McMaster's ceremony to remember Polytechnique victims laid flowers at this stone memorial outside John Hodgins Engineering Building. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Kim Jones was in her final year of high school, thirty years ago, and torn between pursuing a career in engineering and science when a gunman opened fire at École Polytechnique de Montréal, killing 14 women.

Jones was only 17 at the time, but remembers feeling shock, anger and something more — a hardened resolve.

"That really drove my determination to prove that women belonged in engineering and could excel in an engineering space," she said, speaking of the shooting on Dec. 6, 1989.

"To me what happened at École Polytechnique was a profound anti-feminist statement … and that made me very angry."

Today, Jones is an associate professor of chemical engineering at McMaster University. She's also the chair of the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering, which runs workshops for parents and girls aimed at attracting more women to the field.

But the path she took to get there wasn't easy.

The professor recalls being the only woman in the workplace during the co-op portion of her undergrad degree at the University of Waterloo.

She said her boss at the time was "handsy" and gave her unwanted hugs until she told him to stop because it made her uncomfortable.

There were no more hugs after she spoke out, but Jones said another problem quickly took their place.

"I later realized he, also at that point, stopped giving me interesting assignments."

McMaster University chemical engineering associate professor Kim Jones is also the chair of the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering. (Submitted by Kim Jones)

Later, while working at a plant, Jones said sexist incidents continued.

"One of my coworkers at lunch time launched into an elaborate fantasy of how I should be stripping at his desk in front of our other coworkers," she remembered, adding she responded by telling him he should be so lucky, which got a laugh from everyone else in the room.

Jones used humour and aggression to survive, but eventually she chose to step away from the field to do a masters in science.

"It was certainly the repeated and tiring pieces of exclusion, intentional or not, that made me decide I wasn't sure at that point that I wanted to devote my energies both to succeeding in my career and to fighting the kind of misogyny I was seeing at that point in engineering," Jones explained.

35 per cent of the incoming class at McMaster are women

Friday marks 30 years since the shooting. The anniversary was recognized during ceremonies across the country, including one at McMaster's John Hodgins Engineering building from 4 to 5:30 p.m., which drew a crowd of roughly 50 people.

Since 2014, 14 beams of light have lit up the sky in Montreal every evening on Dec. 6, in memory of the victims. This year, École Polytechnique asked engineering schools across the country, including McMaster's, to join by beaming a giant light into the sky in synch with institutions across Canada.

McMaster's engineering department joined universities across the country Friday in shooting a beam of light into the sky, to honour victims of the Polytechnique massacre. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

"The reason that these women were murdered was because they were women studying engineering, and it wasn't believed there was a place for them to be there by that individual," said fifth year chemical engineering student Melissa Cusack, who attended McMaster's ceremony.

"There is a place for us here," said Cusack, who is the current president of the school's engineering society. 

"I don't feel like I shouldn't be here, I know I should be here, and I think all women should feel that." 

Jones said she's seen a lot of change in engineering over the past three decades and that students today have a very different experience than she did.

About 35 per cent of the incoming class at McMaster are women, the professor noted, adding representation is important.

But "there's still bounds to go for women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]," said Roberta Boreham, a fourth year electrical engineering and biomedicine student, who also attended the ceremony.

"If we forget things like [the Polytechnique massacre], then we think that we've made it to equality. Just because we feel safer and we feel like we belong here, doesn't mean everything's equitable and inclusive." 

A crowd of roughly 50 people gathered outside John Hodgins Engineering building, most of them wearing white ribbons on their jackets to honour the victims of the massacre. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Men have also joined the effort as active allies who are trying to encourage women to succeed and to take on leadership roles.

"Knowledge, awareness and attitudes have come a long way since the time I was an engineering student," said Jones. "It's really my goal and mission to make sure that my students don't encounter the same sort of barriers I encountered."

However, while the field seems to be "moving in the right direction," she said women who want to become engineers still face barriers.

Jones said those struggles include people treating women differently, not offering them field work because they might get dirty and excluding them from interesting assignments or not giving them a voice in meetings.

"If you actually look at the math, which I do as an engineer, when women are underrepresented they're disproportionately affected by the small proportion of men who behave badly," she said. "The rest of us need to respond to that and actively try to overcome [it]."

Jones encouraged everyone to think about ways they can help by involving women in their networks, encouraging them to become engineers and ensure they're never on a panel where no women have been invited to participate.

Making sure there's more than one woman on a team is another way to make sure their contributions are recognized and valued.

"Because we're not at parity and we're not at true inclusion this is not a battle you can win and forget about. It's an ongoing piece of work," she said.

"Remembering the danger those women felt is very difficult. But I'm also incredibly proud of the work we've done to change the environment."

with files from Justin Mowat