Opinion

As we mourn École Polytechnique's victims, let's also reflect on the trailblazing women in engineering

Women have a long way to go to reach equal representation in engineering, but today they play a key role in innovation and building the future of our economy, write Mary Wells and Suzanne Kresta.

Attacker ended precious lives of young and inspiring engineering students, but could not hold women back

People lay flowers around the plaque in Montreal commemorating the 14 women killed at École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989: Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, and Annie Turcotte. (Ivanoh Demers)

This column is an opinion by Mary Wells and Suzanne Kresta. Wells is Dean at the Faculty of Engineering, University of Waterloo. Kresta is the Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Thirty-one years have passed since 14 women, almost all engineering students, were murdered at Montreal's École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989. It was a catastrophic human loss.

It was also a tragic loss of talent. Back then, every female engineer was a pioneer in a male-dominated environment.

A lone attacker ended the precious lives of those young and inspiring women, but he could not hold us all back. At the time of the shooting, female engineers made up less than two per cent of engineering academics across the country. Today that number has grown to about 17 per cent, and women now make up 10 per cent of Canada's engineering deans.

We've got a long way to go to reach equal representation in the field, but today as we mourn we can also take a moment to reflect on some of the women who have taken us this far.

Six women have successfully completed their terms as Canadian deans of engineering, acting as role models and mentors, leading to a remarkable updraft in opportunities for young women. And each has had a direct impact on technology that has changed our world.

These women are our engineering superheroes. They rose from the challenge of being the first woman in the room and the only one at the table for much of their early careers, to being major players in building the technology and the innovations that drive our country today, to their work as transformative leaders in engineering education.

Hoda ElMaraghy became dean of engineering at the University of Windsor in 1994. She is the first woman to serve as dean of engineering at a Canadian university. (University of Windsor)

Hoda ElMaraghy, former dean of engineering at the University of Windsor, works in digital manufacturing — research that has transformed the way we design and manufacture the products we use every day.

ElMaraghy's research has involved investigations into the design, implementation, operation and control of advanced and reconfigurable manufacturing systems. This has helped manufacturers around the world adapt and respond to market changes and increase their productivity and competitiveness.

Tyseer Aboulnasr was the second female dean of engineering in Canada, serving from 1998 to 2004 at the University of Ottawa and later on as a dean at the University of British Columbia. She was a leader in engineering education and the first woman to chair the Council of Ontario Deans of Engineering.

Aboulnasr's research in the area of digital signal processing led to improvements in speech and image processing.

Cristina Amon, left, is the first woman to be dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, serving from 2006 to 2019. (Roberta Baker)

Cristina Amon's pioneering research work in developing the field of computational fluid dynamics has had an impact on a diverse range of everyday applications — from how Canadian wind farms are designed and laid out, to heat management systems for wearable computers to help improve human health.

She also transformed the University of Toronto's Faculty of Applied Sciences into a highly collaborative, multidisciplinary culture, one of the best in the world for biomedical engineering.

Elizabeth Cannon, former dean of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary, has led research at the forefront of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, a means of tracking positions on Earth using signals received from satellites.

Today, uses of GPS include everything from wildlife tracking collars, to a replacement for gyroscopes, to measuring pitch on board ships, and to Google Maps, which has changed the way we drive and has improved safety for millions all over the world.

Elizabeth Cannon was dean of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary from 2006 to 2010, and went on to serve as the university's president. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Kim Woodhouse is now the Vice-Principal Research at Queen's University. While Dean of Engineering at Queen's, she put a heavy emphasis on engineering education based on learning outcomes, initiated meaningful Indigenous access programs, and built up a number of research initiatives.

Pearl Sullivan, who passed away last weekend after a 12-year battle with cancer, had an indelible impact on the engineering education experience at the University of Waterloo.

Sullivan was a champion for the role engineers can play in disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing and wireless communications.

Pearl Sullivan, the University of Waterloo’s former dean of engineering and first woman to hold the position, passed away on Nov. 28. (University of Waterloo )

Each of these six women has played an important role in the leadership of Canadian engineering programs, and each of them has played a part in the fabric of innovation in our country, building the future of our economy.

The changes engineers bring to our world are profound, from protecting assembly-line workers from repetitive stress injuries through the use of robotics, to minimally invasive endoscopic surgery which dramatically reduces recovery times and improves patient outcomes, to the way we drive our cars.

We know that having diverse perspectives at the design table leads to better engineering. Our engineering leaders also create opportunities for others – including women, Indigenous people, people of colour and international students – all of whom bring a different lens to the innovation table and benefit us all.

On this 31st anniversary of an act of violence which had an impact on all of us, we mourn those we've lost. And we salute our pioneering leaders, this first wave of Canadian female engineering deans, for their remarkable courage, vision and inspiration.


Clarifications

  • After this column was originally published, the authors added information about Tyseer Aboulnasr, who was dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Ottawa from 1998 to 2004.
    Dec 07, 2020 9:18 AM ET

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