Montreal

Point of View: I face sexism as a young, female engineer, but I have hope

While I may not fear for my life as women did immediately following the horror of what happened at Montréal Polytechnique 30 years ago, I don’t feel as comfortable or confident as I should. 

30 years after the Polytechnique shooting, a Concordia engineering student writes about her experience

In this point-of-view piece, Riya Dutta writes about the kind of casual sexism that makes engineering a struggle, and the work she's doing to support other women in her field. (Submitted by Riya Dutta)

My name is Riya Dutta, I'm a fourth-year software engineering student and the president of Women in Engineering Concordia, a student-run undergraduate association. 

I was born in New Delhi, India, and I came to Montreal in my last year of high school. That was six years ago. I'm 22 now.

In high school and CEGEP, the Polytechnique massacre wasn't talked about. 

I only heard about that terrible day when I got to university. 

Reading about it, I was in tears. 

I could not understand why such brilliant young women, who had done nothing except to pursue their passions, were killed — simply for being women. 

It made me wonder how different the world we are living in today is from when this tragedy occurred, 30 years ago.

Lighting white candles on Dec. 6 in a tribute to the women killed in the Polytechnique massacre and other victims of violence against women has become an annual tradition in Montreal and many other places in Canada. (Andre Pichette/Reuters)

Lack of role models and support, lots of pressure

I have always loved math and science, so studying engineering was a natural choice for me. 

I considered studying something else, but my love of science won, and I went into engineering. Four years later, I do not regret my decision at all.

In my first year of university, classes were large. I wasn't consciously counting, but the lack of women was noticeable. 

In every group project that first year, I was the only girl. 

I'd say that in a class of 100 students, there may have been half a dozen women. 

There were so few of us that I didn't make any female friends in my classes until my third year! That was shocking to me.

I had gone to an all-girls school for 12 years. I was comfortable and confident around women, but when I started studying engineering, suddenly, I felt I was lacking female support. 

Thirty years after the antifeminist attack at Polytechnique, I can't help but feel that as a woman in engineering, I am still a bit of an outsider, sometimes. 

It's mostly when I'm in a group setting, at work or at school. 

This is what led me to Women in Engineering (WIE) Concordia. I joined the executive and was elected president the following year.

The Women in Engineering chapter at Concordia organizes outreach events to help female engineering students find support in their field. (Submitted by Riya Dutta)

WIE gave me a platform to not only work toward a cause I believe in — supporting girls and women of all ages — but to make me reflect on my own experiences. 

I started seeing issues I had previously overlooked. 

Casual sexism takes its toll

A key factor to success in engineering is bonding with your team. 

While it is always a challenge to integrate into a new group, being a woman makes it even harder. 

I have been in work and school environments that were boys' clubs — where I was the only girl or one of just two girls. 

And when a man in the group makes a comment or a joke that makes me uncomfortable, I am presented with two options: either go along with it, or call the person out. 

Every Dec. 6, Concordia's Women in Engineering chapter hands out white ribbons, lights candles and puts up signs with the names of the 14 killed. (Submitted by Riya Dutta)

If I do call someone out for a joke they made that everyone laughed at but me, I'm told to "loosen up" or told I'm a "buzzkill," and I'm excluded from other conversations.

If I bring up the issue of the "joke" to upper management, I am not treated sympathetically. 

Maybe things would be better if there were women in higher positions, but there seldom are.

The lack of women leaders puts pressure on the current generation to excel. Failure is not an option. 

How each of us does as individuals seems to determine whether women, as a group, have the aptitude to be engineers at all.

That's a lot of pressure.

As long as we work hard, we should have the right to hit rough patches as we grow.

I have been lucky to have strong female role models in my life, such as my mom.

The 14 women who lost their lives 30 years ago would have been in their 50s now — the same age as my mom.  They, too, would have been leaders and mentors by now.

Women hug after laying flowers in front of Montreal's École Polytechnique on Dec. 9, 1989. (Shaney Komulainen/The Canadian Press)

We have made progress over the past 30 years, but we still have a long way to go.

There is still a serious lack of female role models in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Only about 18 per cent of newly licensed engineers in Quebec are women, according to Engineers Canada, a national engineering regulator. 

While I may not fear for my life as women did following the horror of what happened 30 years ago, I don't feel as comfortable or confident as I should. 

In the week leading up to Dec. 6, I'll be in the halls of my university, handing out white ribbons alongside other female engineering students. 

On the anniversary of the shooting, WIE will be hosting a memorial and lighting 14 candles to honour the victims.

I do believe that there is hope. 

I believe that we can reach gender parity in engineering — get to the 50 per cent mark — but the first step is to recognize that there is still a problem.

About the Author

Dutta is fourth year software engineering student who is originally from India and came to Montreal in her last year of high school, in 2013. She is also the president of the Women in Engineering association at Concordia University. She hopes to use her work to inspire and encourage girls to pursue science.

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