#4. 31 Years Later, Gender Disparity Persists

[seulement en anglais]

Queer women are disproportionately the victims of violence in Canadian society. It is therefore important for the 2SLGBTQ+ community to stand in solidarity with efforts to end violence against all women, notably those who also identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.

This is a cross-publication of this article intended to mark the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women today. It will be officially released on another platform in the next week.

December 6th is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. On this day, Canadians commemorate victims of the École Polytechnique Massacre:

  • Geneviève Bergeron – born 1968 – civil engineering student

  • Hélène Colgan – born 1966 ­­– mechanical engineering student

  • Nathalie Croteau – born 1966 – mechanical engineering student

  • Barbara Daigneault – born 1967 – mechanical engineering student

  • Anne-Marie Edward – born 1968 – chemical engineering student

  • Maud Haviernick – born 1960 – materials engineering student

  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz – born 1958 – nursing student

  • Maryse Laganière – born 1964 – university budget clerk

  • Maryse Leclair – born 1966 – materials engineering student

  • Anne-Marie Lemay – born 1967 – mechanical engineering student

  • Sonia Pelletier – born 1961 – mechanical engineering student

  • Michèle Richard – born 1968 – materials engineering student

  • Annie St-Arneault – born 1966 – mechanical engineering student

  • Annie Turcotte – born 1969 – materials engineering student

This day also presents an annual opportunity to call on ministries of education and school boards across Canada to address the gender imbalance observed in high school physics. Legal and statutory changes and a shift in the sociocultural perception of women and the physical sciences could minimize the loss of female students between Grade 10 Science and Grade 12 Physics.

High school physics presents greatest barrier

Grade 12 physics is a prerequisite for all accredited undergraduate engineering programs in Canada, the required professional degree for licensing by regulatory bodies of engineers in all provinces and territories. A 2018 study led by the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering found that only 15% of female students who complete Grade 10 Academic Science in Ontario, compared to 30% of male students, enrol in Grade 12 Physics (Fig 1) [1]. Professor Mary Wells, current Dean of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, highlights in an interview for this article:

One of the pinch points in the pipeline is still making sure girls are "engineering ready" at the end of high school. The biggest issue continues to be encouraging girls to take physics in grades 11 and 12. Part of it has to do with educating girls, their parents and guidance counsellors around the requirement of high school Physics to apply to engineering.

Gender parity is present or nearly present in Chemistry, Biology, Advanced Functions, and Calculus & Vectors, yet only 34% of Grade 12 Physics students are female [2]. This number translates to around 20% of undergraduate engineering and physics students being female in Ontario [3].

Figure 1. Ontario’s Leaky Pipeline of Women in Engineering Education [4] demonstrating that the most significant loss of female students occurs at Grade 11 and 12 Physics.

École Polytechnique massacre a stark reminder

The monument at Place du 6-Décembre-1989 in Montreal was updated in 2019 to indicate that the Polytechnique shooting was an act of violence against women. A total of 14 women were killed. 12 of them were engineering students [5], targeted and murdered for pursuing a career that traditionally excluded women.

This incident remains the most significant discipline-specific mass killing of women in Canadian history. Female medical students, law students, commerce students, and other female students in traditionally male-dominated disciplines have not been targeted and murdered for their career choice to the same extent.

Today, engineering is still the farthest from gender parity of the fields mentioned. Nearly 45% of individuals called to the Bar in Canada self-identified as women in 2018 [6], while only 13% of licensed engineers in Canada were female in the same year [7]. Encouraging more female students to pursue Grade 12 Physics would play a pivotal role in increasing this number.

Prof. Wells graduated from Metallurgical Engineering at McGill University in Montréal two years before the shooting. Knowing that she could have been met with the same fate has impacted her approach to engineering:

When I graduated from McGill in 1987, I never considered myself a woman in engineering—only an engineer. It was after the Montreal Massacre that, for the first time, I consciously remember thinking that I was also a woman in engineering and that I also could have easily been one of these women in the room. I was completely shocked and horrified by what had happened that day and it is etched in my mind forever. These young women were my counterparts and would be my age today. I continue to feel obligated to them and their memory to do everything I can to encourage the next generation of women to pursue engineering since they did not have a chance to.

Statutes and common law as potential solutions

Provincial ministers of education have the statutory authority to increase the number of compulsory science credits to obtain a secondary school diploma [8]. Universities could discard Physics as an admission requirement at the risk of imposing further inequity because it would have to be replaced by a non-credit course in the first year of an already rigorous curriculum [9]. Students cannot succeed in an accredited engineering program without the content taught in Grade 12 Physics.

Common law should condemn the substantive inequality and inequity faced by women and other equity-seeking groups while studying or working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) when possible. Canadian courts have yet to have the chance to address the systemic barriers faced by female high school students despite potential violation of section 5 of the Canadian Human Rights Act [10] (and provincial Human Rights Codes where available) and section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms [11].

Sociocultural shift brings new hope

There is no reason to believe that the gender disparity in engineering is because of inherent biological differences that render women less apt for the physical sciences than men [12]. The ‘inherent differences’ argument persists as part of a broader social construct that discourages young women from considering a career in engineering and physics. Like that of law, the image of the engineering profession is inevitably determined by individuals in positions of power, underscoring the importance of institutional frameworks that enable and empower diversity.

Ministers of education, provincial legislatures, and school boards all play essential roles in increasing the enrolment in high school Physics, as do universities. Outreach efforts and admission criteria strongly influence course selection in high school [13]. Therefore, it is important to also call on academic leaders, like Engineering Deans, to take an open stance on equity and diversity. To this end, Prof. Wells states:

I believe the diversity framework in Ontario Universities has evolved significantly over the years and some Universities have become strong leaders in ensuring equity is included and considered in every operation. These frameworks increase diversity awareness so that we work towards greater equity and social justice in our university campus and the communities we serve. Despite this, there is still much we can do to ensure everyone in our Universities feel welcome, respected and included.

[1] Mary A. Wells et al, “Closing the Gender Gap in Engineering and Physics: The Role of High School Physics” (14 December 2018), online (pdf): Ontario Network of Women in Engineering <>. [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Teresa Z. Sourour, “Report of Coroner’s Investigation” (10 May 1991), online (pdf): Bureau du coroner - Gouvernement du Québec <>. [6] Federation of Law Societies of Canada, “MEMBERSHIP—2018 Statistical Report of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada” (2019), online (pdf): Federation of Law Societies of Canada <>. [7] Engineers Canada, “2018 National Membership Information” (2019), online: Engineers Canada <>. [8] Education Act, RSO 1990, c E.2. [9] Wells, supra note 1. [10] Canadian Human Rights Act, RSC 1985, c H-6 [11] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 7, Part 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11. [12] Tamjid Mujtaba & Michale J Reiss, “What Sort of Girl Wants to Study Physics after the Age of 16? Findings from A Large-Scale UK Survey” (2013) 35:17 Intl J Science Education 2979. [13] Wells, supra note 1.

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