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The Learning Partnership reflects on National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

For those of us with membership in a particular demographic, December 6 is an extremely difficult date to forget.  I, myself, was on a gap year, babysitting my way through Italy and Europe, digging deep to remember why I was at university in the first place.

Everyone’s retelling of the circumstances are different. I was watching the local Florentine news. The images were grainy and indistinct, but the Montreal Massacre was the top story. On this day in 1989, 42 people were shot, 14 lost their lives, all of them women. A man with a gun and a knife entered Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique on the last day of classes before exams. He separated the women from the men, firing several rounds of ammunition before taking his own life.

There were many attempts to understand the features of the tragedy: a brutally violent retribution of feminism, a statement against women in science, the actions of a mad man?

In the years following, it was the hallmark of the December 6 event to repeat the names of each of the women who lost their lives that day, lest the name of the perpetrator overshadow the lives lived of those 14 lost souls. University and college ceremonies were by far the largest and most elaborate. Such events brought out institutional presidents and board chairs, chancellors and high-powered female academics. Pledges were made to make engineering and science friendlier to women students. The pledges were earnest, but as time passed, those annual observances became more modest and the events more subdued. The initial anger and fear faded, replaced by a positive, groundswell of a movement against violence against women, with male partners marching in near equal numbers. In fact, many positive things have emerged from the actions and vigilance of that movement: among them, tighter guns laws and a change in the tactical ways in which police respond to such events. But what of women and science? What of women’s embrace of science – or more aptly, science’s embrace of women?

Let’s look at the state of affairs, according to a 2011 StatsCan report, which mined the most data available through the National Household Survey (NHS):
  • As of 2011, women accounted for 39 per cent of university graduates aged 25 to 34 with a STEM degree in 2011, compared with 66 per cent of university graduates in non-STEM programs.
  • Among STEM graduates aged 25 to 34, women accounted for 59 per cent of those in science and technology programs, but accounted for 23 per cent of those who graduated from engineering and 30 per cent of those who graduated from mathematics and computer science program.
  • Men aged 25 to 34 with STEM degrees, who are more concentrated in engineering, had lower unemployment rates, higher wages and a lower rate of job mismatch than their non-STEM counterparts. The labour market outcomes of women with STEM degrees, who are more concentrated in science and technology, did not clearly differ from non-STEM women in this age group.

These research highlights the nagging gap in men’s and women’s enrolment in engineering programs: Despite women’s increasing presence in science lecture halls and laboratories, women are represented at less than half the science and math rate in engineering programs. And perhaps even more interesting is that women graduates from non-engineering STEM programs do not fare much better in the labour market than their non-STEM counterparts.

These things must change if we are to exploit the entirety of our great Canadian talent pool.  At The Learning Partnership, we believe that the future of the Canadian economy depends on widening this pool to the fullest extent possible, to ensure everyone – every boy and every girl in every classroom across the country – can imagine only limitless possibilities, uncurbed by the traditional expectations anchored to gender.

Let’s all refresh our pledge to do that today for the 14 women who lost their lives 30 years ago.

Stacey Young is the Director of Impact and Government Relations at The Learning Partnership. This post was originally published in December 2018.