Why are Women in STEM Still Unsafe? Commemorating L'École Polytechnique Massacre With Action

November 30, 2020 written by, Dr. Mary-Catherine Kropinski, Associate Dean EDI in the Faculty of Science

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) uses the metaphor of a “leaky pipeline” to describe the loss of women along the journey from their undergraduate education or earlier through graduate school, postdoctoral appointment and on up through the ranks of the academy. There are many explanations for these leaks, which I will not attempt to distill here. Instead, in commemoration of the National Day of Remembrance and Action On Violence Against Women, I will amplify a single source: sexual violence. For clarity, by “sexual violence” I mean the spectrum of assaults targeted at people because of their gender, with micro-aggressions at one end of this spectrum, and, as in the case of the École Polytechnique Massacre, murder at the other.

When I was originally invited by the SVSPO to write this blog post, my thoughts first turned to this article discussing sexual harassment in the sciences. Some highlights: “Sexual harassment is pervasive throughout academic science in the United States, driving talented researchers out of the field and harming others’ careers,” and “the prevalence of sexual harassment in US academia […] is second only to the military’s.” However, recent first- and second-hand experiences of my own have prompted me to take a more personal approach to discussing the persistence of sexual violence directed towards women in the sciences. 

When the fourteen women engineering students were murdered at L’École Polytechnique, I was finishing up my first year of graduate school studying applied mathematics at the University of Waterloo. Applied math is a field not so far removed from engineering – cousins really, one providing language for the other. I can still viscerally recall the horror I felt when I heard that women my age had been gunned down because they were studying engineering. Because a man had followed the twisted logic that women studying in a male-dominated field must be feminists, therefore they were keeping him from what he felt he was entitled to, and so they deserved to die. 

Fast forward over thirty years to today: I’ve had a lifetime working as an academic in science, with this lifetime being longer than most of the fourteen women killed in the massacre. During this career, I have served as the Chair of my department and I am currently the Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the Faculty of Science. I have been at the receiving end of micro- and macro-aggressions because of my gender. I have even been subjected to a variant of the twisted logic from above: I’m a woman in a male-dominated field, but now with some authority. Therefore, not only am I a feminist, but I must have a feminist agenda whose sole aim is to deny men of what they feel they are entitled to. There has been a conclusion offered for this particular rancid argument; for reasons related to my personal safety, I won’t state it here.

To be clear, while the impact on my sense of safety and well-being has been considerable, this impact is not what concerns me most.  What is intolerable to me is seeing women students and colleagues continue to be harmed by sexual violence, both immediately and by living in the shadow of its pervasive threat. In my most pessimistic moments, it feels as if nothing has changed during my academic lifetime. In my Faculty, women students still report feeling like the “other” – coincidentally invisible and conspicuous – a feeling I remember well from my own student days. Certain spaces are not safe for them. They are spoken over in class, actively undermined and underestimated, excluded, threatened, and assaulted. The STEM subjects are foundational and provide the key to achieving innovation and sustainability: what is society losing by not providing our women students the safety and well-being that is essential to their success? Pessimism, however, does not honour the fourteen women who died. Eradicating the barriers, such as sexual violence, facing women students in STEM would. Eliminating the institutional roadblocks for removing the worst and chronic perpetrators of sexual violence from our community would as well. 

There is reason for hope. SFU’s new president, Dr. Joy Johnson, recently made four commitments to equity, diversity and inclusion, including establishing a new senior leadership position. Let us all do what we can to ensure Dr. Johnson and this new leader are successful in leading meaningful and lasting change at SFU. Engage in a conversation with the President about equity and inclusion. Read the proposed new Human Rights and Bullying & Harassment Policies and provide feedback.  Join the SVSPO’s Active Bystander Network. Hold yourself accountable to SFU’s revised Sexual Violence and Misconduct Prevention, Education and Support Policy.  

Those of us who bear the responsibility for the well-being of students, myself included, are well aware of the need to hold the perpetrators of sexual violence accountable as a part of the remedy to end sexual violence. Unsanctioned, the presence of these offenders in class or on campus continues to inflict damage on those they have harmed. And these offenders may well go on to harm others. I want to draw attention to a persistent institutional catch-22. In order to be able to hold offenders to account, we rely on a survivor filing a “Report of Sexual Violence.” However, filing a report increases the exposure of the survivor, which could well lead to further harm. I have witnessed this catch-22 and its damage to survivors a few times. It’s demoralizing. 

When it comes to the most pernicious of offenders – the serial predator – the institutional response becomes nearly impotent, particularly when that person holds power and privilege. The road blocks are well articulated in a recent article by Dr. Aisha S. Ahmad entitled “Why Is It So Hard to Fire a Tenured Sexual Predator?”. I will close with a quote from this article – it is a call to courage for all of us, but particularly those of us who hold leadership positions within SFU:

“Systemic change requires moral courage. It asks leaders to do what is right rather than what is easy. […] It would be best if campus administrators acted now, based on their moral duty to keep faculty, staff, and students safe. Because, really, this cannot go on.”

About the author:

Mary-Catherine Kropinski is a Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Associate Dean, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Faculty of Science. She has a BSc from Queen’s University, an MMath from the University of Waterloo, and a PhD from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Prior to joining SFU in 1995, Mary-Catherine held a visiting research position at the Courant Institute of NYU.

Mary-Catherine teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in applied mathematics. She is a computational scientist whose research interests include designing targeted, high-precision tools to solve mathematical problems arising in fluid dynamics.


Intergenerational reflections on the National Day of Remembrance

On December 4th, 2020, in memory of the National Day of Remembrance and Action on violence against women, our office in collaboration with other SFU partners* hosted an intergenerational conversation between individuals who were indirectly impacted by the massacre, and current students, to talk about what has changed on the issue of gender-based violence and how to continue building concrete actions to end gender violence. 

*This event was a collaborative effort between SFU WiE, the Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Office, the SFU Human Rights Office, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion SFU, and the SFSS Women’s Centre. 

Guest speakers:

Mary-Catherine Kropinski.

Dr. Anita Tino is a faculty member in the ENSC department at SFU, and Professional Engineer. She completed her B.Eng, M.A.Sc and PhD at Ryerson University (Toronto, Ontario) in Electrical & Computer Engineering. She pursued her Post-Doc in France, working as a computer architect at INRIA designing a hybrid CPU-GPU core. She continues to research new hybrid computer architectures, machine learning, and bioinformatics, while teaching and improving the ENSC curriculum in hardware-related courses.

CJ Rowe (PhD) is the Director of SFU’s Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office where they work with a team to support individuals impacted by sexual violence and sexual misconduct, develop sexual violence intervention and prevention educational campaigns, learning opportunities and initiatives and works closely with the University to implement and operationalize policy. 


Rose Epstein is a first-year engineering student at SFU, completing her second degree. She studied Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Saskatchewan and she is interested in Computer and Biomedical Engineering. She is excited to be a part of the WiE team, working towards inspiring young women to join STEM and create more diversity in engineering!

Samin Moradkhan is a second-year engineering student interested in AI and Biomedical engineering. Her passion is helping people and encouraging new students to get involved with the community. She is very happy to be a part of this team, plan events for all students and bring young women together.