Katherine Rentsch, P. Eng.
Crozier Consulting Engineers
Nov. 13, 2020
It is November, and the days are getting shorter. Remembrance Day has just passed, and my thoughts turn to December 6. Thirty-one years ago, at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, fourteen women in engineering lost their lives, deliberately targeted for choosing a profession traditionally viewed as belonging to men. Ten more were injured. Four men were injured unintentionally in the crossfire.
I can’t remember if I was aware of it when it happened. I was eleven at the time, and quite pre-occupied with my new braces and how they might affect my social life. I have a vague recollection of being horrified by the news but didn’t really think about it. Thoughts of being an engineer were still years away.
Less than 10 years later I blithely went to university to pursue an education in engineering. Not once did it cross my mind that I might be putting myself in danger due to my choice of career. I was naively under the impression that sexism had been if not solved, then at least brought out into the open for all to see, and to be addressed. I was encouraged as a child to pursue anything I wanted and was told there were no more barriers because I was a woman. I was accepted into an Engineering program no different than any of my male colleagues, and my marks seemed to determine my success. Gender bias was not a term that I was familiar with at the time.
Since graduating, I have forged a successful and satisfying career. I have worked in both consulting and academia and have made contributions to my profession through participation in industry associations and on provincial commissions. I have become a respected voice in my field of onsite sewage systems. I have also raised two boys and have been the primary “breadwinner” for my household for the entirety of my career. We have a nice life, and I have much to be grateful for.
However, over the course of my career I have learned that gender discrimination and bias is very real in the engineering profession. Most often it is not intentional or malicious, or meant to cause harm. A story I like to tell is of meeting a client with whom I had been corresponding with via telephone and email for several months. The client knew I was the engineer assigned to the project, and yet, when I arrived at the job site and introduced myself, the client asked where the engineer was. As I laughed it off, I remember thinking, “what is it about me that doesn’t look like ‘the engineer’?”
It’s a funny story to tell. No one got hurt. I did my job and everything ended well – but it stayed with me. After almost 15 years of doing my job, why do I still not look like “the engineer”? It reminded me of something I was told as a junior engineer: I had three strikes against me – I was young, I was the engineer, and I was a woman.
It was well-meant advice before being sent out to a job site where there would be no other women. In a round-about way I think this was my manager’s way of looking out for me and my safety. But think about it; I can age out of the first strike. My male colleagues also face the second strike, so that levels the playing field. But there is nothing I can do about the third strike. I can’t outgrow it, I can’t outsmart it, I can’t out-anything it.
I call it a fence that I just seem to keep bumping up against. I bump into it during meetings when I am expected to provide refreshments, or when clients are more comfortable talking to my male colleagues. I bump into when I go to job sites, where at best I might be “mansplained”, and at worst I might be too afraid to get out of my car. I have been leered at, propositioned, followed around the job site and followed home. I bump into during technical review of my work, when I am required to provide additional documentation and evidence. I have been bullied and verbally harassed while making submissions on behalf of clients to regulatory agencies. I bump into it when I am teaching where students are more interested in my appearance than the content of the course. My experience and my work are discounted or undervalued simply because I am a woman. I bump into it during performance reviews and salary negotiations and promotions. My family is often positioned as a conflict to my career. I am expected to be grateful for the opportunities offered to me and to keep quiet about what I perceive to be gender inequity.
Unfortunately, these experiences are not unique to me. Many of my female colleagues, young and old, have bumped into the same fence, to varying degrees. Make no mistake: we are climbing over the fence. More and more women are being represented in senior management roles, in positions of leadership and power, and in mentorship programs. When we see women in these roles, it makes it possible for the next generation to dream it too. But instead of just climbing over the fence, we should be trying to dismantle it. This will require collective action by all in the engineering industry. It will require us to confront our biases and to acknowledge our complacency.
Gender discrimination and bias is real, and studies and statistics bear it out time and again. Although we are registering a significant increase in enrollment of women in engineering programs across the province, in the present day workforce, only 13% of engineers are women, and only 30% of women who earn degrees in engineering are still working in the industry twenty years later. Women in engineering earn between 80 – 90 cents on the dollar to a man’s salary, depending on discipline. For too long we have blamed women for these inequities, suggesting that their choices/actions/behaviours are the problem, instead of identifying and dismantling the barriers and obstacles that influence their decisions and careers.
As December 6 approaches, I reflect on my experiences and the ongoing bias statistics. It has become increasingly important to me to observe the anniversary and to remember the women who died, dreaming of one day being an engineer. I survived my education. 14 women, not more than 10 years before me, did not. I have had, and will hopefully continue to have, a successful and rewarding career. Tragically, 14 women had that chance taken away from them. Gender-based violence continues to be a plague in our country and around the globe. My stories and experiences seem so small and insignificant next to the horrors other women face. I hope that by standing up and talking about it, we can acknowledge the problem and start to facilitate change. Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.