This column is an opinion by Mary Wells and Suzanne Kresta. Wells is Dean at the Faculty of Engineering, University of Waterloo. Kresta is the Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Thirty-one years have passed since 14 women, almost all engineering students, were murdered at Montreal’s École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989. It was a catastrophic human loss.
It was also a tragic loss of talent. Back then, every female engineer was a pioneer in a male-dominated environment.
A lone attacker ended the precious lives of those young and inspiring women, but he could not hold us all back. At the time of the shooting, female engineers made up less than two per cent of engineering academics across the country. Today that number has grown to about 17 per cent, and women now make up 10 per cent of Canada’s engineering deans.
We’ve got a long way to go to reach equal representation in the field, but today as we mourn we can also take a moment to reflect on some of the women who have taken us this far.
Five women have successfully completed their terms as Canadian deans of engineering, acting as role models and mentors, leading to a remarkable updraft in opportunities for young women. And each has had a direct impact on technology that has changed our world.
These women are our engineering superheroes. They rose from the challenge of being the first woman in the room and the only one at the table for much of their early careers, to being major players in building the technology and the innovations that drive our country today, to their work as transformative leaders in engineering education.
Hoda ElMaraghy, former dean of engineering at the University of Windsor, works in digital manufacturing — research that has transformed the way we design and manufacture the products we use every day.
ElMaraghy’s research has involved investigations into the design, implementation, operation and control of advanced and reconfigurable manufacturing systems. This has helped manufacturers around the world adapt and respond to market changes and increase their productivity and competitiveness.
Cristina Amon’s pioneering research work in developing the field of computational fluid dynamics has had an impact on a diverse range of everyday applications — from how Canadian wind farms are designed and laid out, to heat management systems for wearable computers to help improve human health.
She also transformed the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Sciences into a highly collaborative, multidisciplinary culture, one of the best in the world for biomedical engineering.
Elizabeth Cannon, former dean of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary, has led research at the forefront of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, a means of tracking positions on Earth using signals received from satellites.
Today, uses of GPS include everything from wildlife tracking collars, to a replacement for gyroscopes, to measuring pitch on board ships, and to Google Maps, which has changed the way we drive and has improved safety for millions all over the world.
Kim Woodhouse is now the Vice-Principle Research at Queen’s University. While Dean of Engineering at Queen’s, she put a heavy emphasis on engineering education based on learning outcomes, initiated meaningful Indigenous access programs, and built up a number of research initiatives.
Pearl Sullivan, who passed away last weekend after a 12-year battle with cancer, had an indelible impact on the engineering education experience at the University of Waterloo.
Sullivan was a champion for the role engineers can play in disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing and wireless communications.
Each of these five women has played an important role in the leadership of Canadian engineering programs, and each of them has played a part in the fabric of innovation in our country, building the future of our economy.
The changes engineers bring to our world are profound, from protecting assembly-line workers from repetitive stress injuries through the use of robotics, to minimally invasive endoscopic surgery which dramatically reduces recovery times and improves patient outcomes, to the way we drive our cars.
We know that having diverse perspectives at the design table leads to better engineering. Our engineering leaders also create opportunities for others – including women, Indigenous people, people of colour and international students – all of whom bring a different lens to the innovation table and benefit us all.
On this 31st anniversary of an act of violence which had an impact on all of us, we mourn those we’ve lost. And we salute our pioneering leaders, this first wave of Canadian female engineering deans, for their remarkable courage, vision and inspiration.