Polytechnique: Women are making advances in science, but there’s still a long way to go
MONTREAL -- There are more women in the sciences now than ever before but there is still much to do to ensure equality between the sexes.
Annie-Hélène Samson, a biology teacher at Dawson College, says she will never forget hearing about the Polytechnique massacre on Dec. 6, 1989 that left 14 women dead.
“It affected my entire generation,” she said, adding she did not know any of the victims personally. “I think all of us, especially as women, but I think even men thought about it for a very long period of time. It was one of the first in Quebec that we heard about.”
The shooter claimed he was “fighting feminism” when he walked into a classroom and asked the men to leave. Once they did, he opened fire on the nine women left, killing six.
The shooter then moved through the corridors, cafeteria and another classroom, specifically targeting women for about 20 minutes before turning the gun on himself.
“[Remembering this event] should be used to address the profound problems that still exist in society,” said Gesche Peters, a science history teacher at Dawson College.
“It's by learning through history that students in all domains can have a connection to this event, whether they were alive or not.”
Though the sciences now seem more accepting of women, Peters points out there is a long way to go to ascend women to leadership positions.
She states that, in the 1950s, the number of women studying science could be counted on both hands.
“By the 1990s, just shortly after the massacre, the enrolments were about a quarter of all degrees… [today], we're now close to 40 percent. There are many organizations of women out there aiming for equity -- 50/50 by 2025,” she said. “A lot has happened and changed since 1989 and it should feel perfectly normal to young women to go into whatever fields they wish to go in.”
Nowadays, Samson and Peters spend their days enriching young minds at Dawson College – too young to have been around when the Montreal massacre happened.
Samson said she believes it’s up to the older generations to teach them about what happened so they can use it to push their own limits – to kick the door down and smash the glass ceiling as hard as they can.
“I think the particularity of Polytechnique, the fact that women were targeted and the intent behind that, to scare women from some scientific fields, really touches them,” she said. “I think because of that, most of our young women, young scientists are motivated to show the world, ‘we’re not going to be intimidated.’”
Peters explains the majority of young women scientists choose to study medicine, but when it comes to other fields, such as engineering and technology, the percentage sinks dramatically.
“Getting into the sciences is only the first step. Staying in the sciences and working in the sciences, let alone in leadership positions, that is something that is still not so great,” Peters stated. “Misogyny, of course, still exists, but so does the effort to stand against that.”
The École Polytechnique massacre is known as the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history and is seen as a devastating event that sparked a wider conversation about violence against women.