The Montreal Massacre and Gender & Professional Identity

This entry should have been posted yesterday but I wasn't able to finish it in time because of migraine. I should have left the other easier stuff alone and concentrated on this earlier in the day when I was feeling somewhat better. In the spirit of better a day late than not at all, here it is, with all its migrainey deficiencies.

Some of you know, some of you don't, that December 6 is the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a brief item in its news blog:

White roses and candlelight vigils are part of ceremonies today on most Canadian campuses and in many communities to mark the 17th anniversary of the shooting deaths of 14 women at Montreal's Ãcole Polytechnique by Marc Lepine. He ordered all of the men out of the classroom and shot the women, then killed himself. An antifeminist manifesto and hit list was found on his body. The Montreal Massacre, as it became known, fueled gun-control legislation.

The women students Marc Lepine shot were engineering students. He was specifically enraged by their encroachment upon what he deemed to be male territory - engineering. He exclaimed before shooting, "You women, you're going to be engineers. You're all a bunch of fucking feminists. I hate feminists."

This past October when I attended the Frontiers in Education conference there was a remarkable presentation by Donna Riley of the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College that involved using the Montreal Massacre to teach lessons about gender in the engineering classroom. Riley's paper (with colleague Gina-Louise Sciarra) was titled: "Your'e All A Bunch Of Fucking Feminists": Addressing The Perceived Conflict Between Gender And Professional Identities Using The Montreal Massacre. The shortened discussion of Riley and Sciarra's work I present here cannot do it justice. I urge you to contact Donna Riley to ask for a reprint of her FIE presentation.

The impetus for the work came from a student who approached Riley and asked about the Montreal massacre. She had stumbled upon information about it on the internet and wanted to know, was it true? Had this really happened? If so, why had she never learned about it in any of her classes? Riley and Sciarra decided to put together a case study of the Montreal massacre that could be used in an engineering classroom to "spur discussion about the event and about the intersection of gender identity and feminist politics with the engineering profession".

Riley and Sciarra note that Lepine's suicide note makes clear he wanted what he did viewed as a political action, not as the act of a madman. When studied in social science classes, the Montreal massacre is studied as an act of violence against women, but in the engineering classroom different questions come up, specifically, what is the significance that 13 of the murdered people were women engineering students? The authors state:

Although this seems a stark example to use to introduce issues of gender bias in engineering, the educational objectives of our lesson plan go much further than simple identification of sexism. By choosing a complex case that requires social analysis, we enable students to view the problem of women's under-representation in engineering in context, so that the sources of the problem can be located and understood. By employing a complex case that connects issues of women in engineering with issues of violence against women, students' analysis must focus on larger questions about gender in society. Our classroom intervention is intended specifically to speak to the perceived conflict between gender and professional identities. We sought to provide students with critical tools for understanding their own experiences and addressing the systemic sources of this conflict. This has the potential to impact persistence for women in engineering.

Teaching this case study accomplishes an additional objective related to ending the silence of the engineering community about this event. This is an "engineering disaster" that should be taught, just as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse or the Challenger accident have become part of the engineering canon. Breaking this silence supports the visibility of women in the profession and creates a space for discussion of more subtle forms of sexism.

The professors showed video clips of eyewitness accounts of the killings from several male students, a male professor, and female survivor, given on the night of the killings. An additional video clip with the female survivor five years later was shown. Then they posed the question, "Is it legitimate to ask why women, or why women in engineering were targeted?"

The first student to speak said she thought women were targeted ' "because of new roles for women and change in our society" '. Several themes emerged in the discussion: changing gender roles in society, feminism, control and power, gender/professional identity, overt and subtle sexism, gendered behavior as a strategy, competition and women's success as a threat, work-life balances, questions of dress, and gender distancing.

During the discussion, one of the students said she doesn't see how you can be a ' "woman woman - like a traditional woman - and be an engineer" '. This, and other statements by the students in the discussion, illustrated their concerns that the "professional identify of an engineer is at odds with the gender identity of a woman". Students talked about "gender distancing" or needing to physically transform themselves, through the way they dressed, to blend in and appear less female, so that they would not be harassed at work or on internships. Another student, a Black woman, told a story of being mistaken for the secretary while on an internship. Upon telling the man who thought she was the secretary that she was actually an engineeering intern, he replied "You don't look like an engineer". Several other students noted they had had similar experiences. Overall, the discussion illuminated the "extra identity work that the women engineering students are doing on a daily basis."

It's identity work that men students don't have to undertake, because no one around them perceives a conflict between "man" and "engineer", no one perceives a conflict between the average mode of dress for men and the way they expect engineers to look, no one perceives a conflict between the average way men are expected to be and the way engineers are expected to be.

Riley and Sciarra's effort took place in a small, women-only class with woman instructor who was using liberative pedagogies with a class used to having discussions. Clearly, adapting the lesson plan to other classroom settings would require some work. But that shouldn't exempt engineers everywhere from responsibility of talking about the Montreal massacre with their engineering students. Riley and Sciarra give some advice for how to adapt this case study to other educational settings in their paper. At the conference, Riley expressed a willingness to work with other educators who were truly interested in incorporating a Montreal massacre case study into one of their courses. In her course, the case study discussion occupied twenty minutes of an eighty minute thermodynamics class. But in that short period of time students were able to address a wide variety of topics that are important for the professional identity of women who choose to be engineers.

I think at the very least we in the United States need to stop pretending that what happened up in Canada has nothing to do with us down here in the States, and we need to start addressing this issue with our students. Teaching it, as Riley and Sciarra say, as one of the engineering disasters we all need to learn from. Not because once a year we want to sit around and bash males. (In fact, one of the painful outcomes of the Montreal massacre was the trauma that the male survivors underwent, because they were unable to do anything to prevent the killings. Discussing that trauma itself provides an opening for understanding gender roles and expectations - why should the males suffer from this guilt more than female survivors? Why do we think men have a special responsibility to protect women? What is it that they need protecting from? )

No, it's not about male bashing. It's about understanding more deeply the contradictions inherent in our understanding of what it means to be a professional engineer and what it means to be a woman, and how we can go about dissolving those contradictions. I say dissolving, not resolving - I don't want to make an uneasy resolution between conflictual identities. I want to completely dissolve the conflict and arrive at a place where we no longer have to adjectivize engineer to understand that we are talking about a woman who's an engineer. No more default assumption that engineer = man.

A girl can dream.

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Thanks so much for this post. I was completely unaware of this event, although sadly, it doesn't surprise me. Hope your migraine's gone. :)

It's identity work that men students don't have to undertake, because no one around them perceives a conflict between "man" and "engineer", no one perceives a conflict between the average mode of dress for men and the way they expect engineers to look, no one perceives a conflict between the average way men are expected to be and the way engineers are expected to be.

This is a nice, concise description of a problem that has angered me for years. Sporadically loud debates have popped up over the last thirty years about appropriate professional dress for women if we "want to be taken seriously". (You could pack a landfill with all the worthless "self-help" books that have been written on the subject.) The problem that is if women aren't taken seriously in the first place, no article or style of clothing is going to fix the problem. I can remember a young professional woman who complained in 1984 that Geraldine Ferraro's clothing made her look "more like a President's wife than like a President or Vice President". Well, duh. Of course it did. There had already been probably seventy or eighty Presidential and Vice Presidential spouses in U.S. history, and all of them wore the equivalents of Ferraro's wardrobe; all the Presidents and Vice Presidents wore clothing typical for males of their class and time.

I get completely frustrated with people who are willing to offer advice (not to mention heavy marketing techniques) to try to convince me that their products will give me a professional image. If the idea of "professional image" excludes whole groups of people by sex, skin color, age, or socioeconomic class at birth, a thousand-dollar power suit isn't going to fix the problem.

As for the Montreal Massacre: No matter how "political" Marc Lepine thought he was, he was a seriously delusional individual who might just as easily have targeted innocent victims by, say, their skin color or language as by their sex. The Lepines of the world are frightening, to be sure, because of their capacity for violence. But the student who could, in 2006, say that she couldn't imagine a "woman woman" being an engineer represents something that's frightening in a different and much deeper way.

I've lost count of how many times someone has said to me, "You look too feminine to be an engineer."

I've given up on polite responses. These days, "Welcome to reality; this is what an engineer looks like."

I used to get a kick out of people's reactions when I told them my major was physics.

But in the end, the idea of dealing with that every day was daunting. (I went an all women's college, so I wasn't dealing with it daily while getting my degree.)