Editor’s Note: The following speech was delivered on Dec. 6, 2022, National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, during a ceremony at the University of New Brunswick, organized by UNB’s Diversity within Engineering society.
This is an important day and one with deep meaning to all of us. I was honoured to be asked to speak at this important event.
December 6, 1989 is forever etched in my mind as it is with many of you. On that day in 1989, I was in my final year of engineering, studying electrical engineering here at UNB. It was a typical afternoon, I was with a group of friends in the engineering library studying for finals; it was getting dark.
Then, I remember someone had heard the news on the radio, someone else had seen it on TV, these were the days before texting, social media. I vividly remember thinking that this wasn’t possible and not even understanding what was happening. It was unbelievable to me…. Students? Women shot? During class? At university? They were engineering students? And they were shot because they were women?
My 22-year-old brain could not even fathom what was happening. I remember going home that evening and seeing my parents who were shaken by the news. We spent the evening staring at unbelievable, tragic images on the television.
In the aftermath of the shooting, I remember sitting in an auditorium during the memorial service and feeling sick to my stomach, listening to the song “Imagine” by John Lennon that was being played. And I looked at my friends who were studying engineering with me at the time and thought: “That could have been us.” Just because we wanted to study engineering and go to class?
Over the next several decades, as each December 6 comes and goes, it’s always surprising to me how incredibly sad and shaken I feel. I don’t understand why these women were at risk for simply being women. As I’ve gotten older, I still don’t understand.
On this day of National Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women, we recognize that there is work to do to end gender-based violence. Diversity requires intentional planning. Women make up more than half of the Canadian population but are significantly underrepresented in the engineering profession.
The percentage of newly licensed engineers who are women nationally was 20.6 per cent as of December 2021. In New Brunswick, it was 16.3 per cent. Engineers Canada has implemented the “30 by 30” initiative which aims to increase women in the profession to 30 per cent by the year 2030. The 30 per cent target is held as the tipping point for sustainable change.
Thirty percent. While I am fully supportive of this initiative, it is not lost on me that I graduated 32 years ago from electrical engineering. Ten percent of our graduating class was female. We are striving to achieve 30 per cent in 2030, yet we have never had a female Dean of Engineering at UNB.
It took decades for the horrific events of December 6 to be recognized as an anti-feminist attack. It was an anti-feminist attack and we need to remember that.
As a profession, we need to create an environment that encourages people to become vocal allies rather than bystanders. We need to continue the work of so many groups to achieve true diversity and inclusion. We need to have women and gender-diverse people at the table at all levels. We need to provide safe spaces to encourage diverse opinions. We need to speak up when we see inappropriate behaviour. This requires active support from men and women.
I’m fortunate. I was raised in a household in which going into engineering wasn’t considered that radical. I enjoyed science in high school and my father suggested it. Seemed like a good fit at the time. I do, however, remember my first year of engineering where it became very clear to me that there were far fewer women in my classes and that some professors were more supportive than others.
When I entered the workforce there were many incidents along the way that would remind me that being a woman in engineering can be challenging. I’ve faced my share of discrimination, both sexist and racist. I’ve heard terrible things, my voice has been dismissed during meetings, I’ve faced disrespect and harassment. Over the years, like so many women I know, I’ve questioned if I had it in me to continue with my career path.
Luckily, the good has outweighed the bad. I’ve also had many positive experiences and met many wonderful individuals who have supported me throughout my career. I have had supportive mentors, men and women, and I have had the great fortune of working with some incredible female engineers who have been sources of strength and support along the way.
The engineering profession can better understand and protect public interest if we are representative of the Canadian demographic. We need to ensure appropriate diversity, equity and inclusion by addressing the underrepresentation of women, as well as other underrepresented demographic groups, in the engineering profession.
We should all have the same opportunities to enter engineering, but there are systemic barriers that disproportionately impact underrepresented groups. We need to remove or neutralize barriers that limit this. As a profession, we need to create an environment that encourages people to become vocal allies rather than bystanders. I am encouraged by the work that is being done here with the UNB Diversity within Engineering Society and so many other organizations and committees. And, I am hopeful that, as a profession, we will see greater diversity and inclusion in the engineering community across the spectrum.
In closing, my thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the victims of the École Polytechnique massacre. We will never know what these young women would have done had their lives not been taken so early. We will never forget them. To all of you, I encourage you to do what you love, have the courage to follow your heart and follow your dreams. Make sure your voice is heard. Support others because there is strength in numbers, and never give up. Be the change that is so needed at this time.
Finally, I would like to paraphrase a quote from the late feminist writer Andrea Dworkin which I think is very appropriate for this day. She said: “It is incumbent upon each of us to be the woman that he wanted to kill. We must live with this honour, this courage. We must drive out fear. We must hold on. We must create. We must resist.”
Usha Kuruganti is a Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick (Fredericton) and a registered professional engineer.