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physicist Prof. Ursula Franklin

by Ursula Franklin | October 16, 1997

At the May 10, 1995, University of New Brunswick “More Than Just Numbers” conference on women and engineering, Dr. Ursula M. Franklin, C.C. FRSC spoke of the December 6, 1989, murder of 14 young women at Montreal’s L’Ecole Polytechnique and the sexism and misogyny that was – and still remains today – at the root of the problem. This is the text of her address.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Having been asked to look forward as well as to look back, I would like to use the short time we have together to reflect on how we got to where we are now, so that we might see more clearly the path ahead and find out what needs to be done next.

... As a point of departure for this evening’s reflections I would like to take you back to the murder on December 6, 1989 of the 14 young women who were students at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. This event has become a benchmark for all of us – because so much changed in the wake of this tragedy; it changed perceptions and interpretations of the climate and the realities of life for women in engineering.

In light of the sudden, horrible realization of what had happened in Montreal, it became possible – likely for the first time in Canada – to say, “this could have happened at OUR university, it could have happened in MY class.” There was a quantum leap in reality recognition across this country.

I remember how my son who, like most sons, did not appear to have much interest in what mother was doing, phoned Peter Gzwosky’s Morningside to share his feelings on hearing the news of the murders and Marc Lepine’s hit list. He suddenly understood that, at another engineering school, it could have been HIS mother’s name on the hit list.

The shock of the events was, of course, particularly strongly felt within the engineering profession – and out of this atmosphere of profound upset it became possible to act, to inquire, to map the reality of the lives of women in engineering.

The resulting soul searching did not only bring inquiries and the commission on whose recommendation we meet today; it brought also for many of us the first opportunity to name and specify what has been going on.

It became possible to speak publicly about the chilly climate, about bias, sexism, misogyny and patriarchy. These concepts could be used and understood in the emerging discourse, a discourse that looked for ways and means to rectify the unacceptable conditions in the study and work environments of women engineers.

The process of identifying the obstacles in the path of women in engineering yielded a number of significant results; it responded to the publicly expressed need of the engineering professions to see more clearly what was going on in their own house; it allowed to separate specific obstacles and suggest remedial measures.

The report, “More Than Just Numbers” provided not only recommendations based on statistics and well documented evidence, but it also insisted benchmarks, tangible evidence of change and on accountability.

Thus the report expresses clearly that fixing a few things behind closed doors is not good enough; what women are pressing for was, and is, equal participation in engineering opportunities AND transparent processes of selection and decision-making in appointments and promotion.

These insights link the struggle of women in engineering to the fundamental issues in the general struggle of women for equal opportunities everywhere; there is always the same concern for justice and the same concern about the lack of respect afforded to women and their often implicit downgrading of their abilities.

Some of you will recall the surprised tone of voice when someone, on having learned of your field of study, would say, “Oh, you are in engineering” – as if implying that this may be really too difficult for a nice girl like you.

I remember well a funny incident that happened to me not too long ago. It was the first week of term and I was going into my office, when I saw a young student, his arm full of books, trying to negotiate the heavy double doors of the Wallberg Building in the Faculty of Engineering at my university.

Obviously a first year student making his way into the halls of the faculty. I held the first door open for him, then the second door; he thanked me politely and then asked: “Do you work here?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Are you a secretary?”

“No. I’m a Professor of Metallurgy.”

“Holy Cow!” was his instantaneous response – quick and uncensored. It was a quite natural and uninhibited reaction, expressing disbelief and surprise at the possibility of a woman being a professor of metallurgy.

Surely, I am also not the only one here who remembers being the sole woman in a class, remembering professors asking whether one was not in the wrong lecture or lab. All such incidents illustrate our double grievance related to both the lack of justice and the lack of respect for our potential that runs through all our lives as women.

Speaking specifically about engineering education, there have been two basic directions in which the rectification of such grievances has been approached: One approach was systemic, the other more case-specific and directly addressing women. I used to call the latter “weight-lifting for girls” and I have never been very enthusiastic about it.

Though I understand full well the need to encourage young women to enter engineering and to support them personally in every possible way, acculturating women into engineering and hardening them against the chilly climate may change the problematic aspects of the culture of engineering less than one might think. The approach also put the prime burden of change on the disadvantaged – which is never a very good idea.

Truly, it is not just a question of numbers, it is a question of structural, institutional and cultural changes – systemic changes – that have to involve the elders of the engineering tribes as well as the majority of the traditional “average” male engineers.

And at this five-year benchmark, we should recognize and celebrate the real and significant changes that have taken place. The mindset that considered sexist student newspapers, crude initiation pranks and “girly” pin-ups integral parts of the education of engineers is no longer publicly acceptable; new codes of conduct have been issued, sexist language has been curtailed and criticized and issues of gender sensitivity have been advanced – although we know, and heard again this afternoon, how much more work needs to be done, especially in the area of gender sensitivity.

Central to the achievements of the past five years is the fact that the grievances of women in engineering have become real and tangible – concrete issues about which something can and will be done, not figments of our imagination. Certainly, some issues will reappear in different guises: the girly calendars may be passé but pornography on the Internet and in the computer rooms is just coming at us and with it the “boys will be boys” and the anti-censorship arguments.

I am confident, though, that each new re-incarnation of sexism will find less acceptance and a clearer and faster rebuttal, because the climate has changed.

You may well ask why I am still unenthusiastic about acculturating women into engineering, since I do see changes in the climate, brought about by concerted attempts to address the grievances of women in engineering.

Basically I would like to make engineering fit for women, rather than women fit for engineering.

You see, I feel that the past exclusion of women from engineering has been bad for our profession; the exclusion of women has meant that some of the values that women have traditionally brought to their tasks have been missing in the habits of work and thoughts in engineering.

I know that, when some of my women students objected to the bad manners of their peers, to the put-downs of women and “artsies,” etc., they were told: this is what engineering is like, you better get accustomed to it. If you can’t hack it, go into early childhood education.

My point, however, is this: There is nothing wrong with women and their values, including those that may make their professional advancement difficult. There is nothing wrong with caring, there is nothing wrong with NOT being aggressive and pushy. There is nothing wrong with expressing the hurt of being treated unjustly.

What IS wrong is the put-down, the insensitivity and the lack of justice and respect – not women’s response to it. And I, for one, do not want to see women engineers so "work hardened" ... that they lose their acute sensitivity, when they or others meet discrimination or injustice. Nothing is served if we were to become mere substitutes of our traditional male peers.

That’s why I interceded this afternoon when someone made the suggestion that in discussion of the mentoring program, one might not want to speak about nurturing, but about coaching. I did not like this suggestion, because I don’t think life is a football game and that coaching THE team to win THE game helps anyone in the end.

Language is very important, language expresses our values and we should not be afraid to use words such as nurturing, concepts such as caring, including the willingness to, if necessary, take second place on occasion. Nurturing, caring and helping are the very attributes that our society so desperately needs – there is no point for us to downplay them – even at the risk of our own advancement.

How, then, do we proceed from here, you will ask, as we come together to celebrate achievements, to express our gratitude to those who have helped to bring them about?

For my answer, let me take you back to the central theme of my thoughts on “looking forward, looking back”, the fact that when we deal with questions important to women in engineering, we are concerned with issues of justice and compassion. Our work is therefore embedded in the patterns of change within the larger society of which engineers are but one component. How we, as women in engineering, conduct the next steps on the road towards our professional equality can be of considerable help – or of hindrance – to the advancement of our sisters in other fields.

Increasingly women are coming into positions of power and influence. I am profoundly convinced that the conduct of women in power must be guided and informed by the collective experience of women when they were powerless. In other words, none of us can forget women’s experience of exclusion and discrimination and tolerate or use practices of bias - bias not only on the basis of gender, but also on the basis of religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.

We cannot condone generic put-downs of “others” – just as we do not condone these tactics when they are applied to women as a group. The use of such a reciprocal yardstick may be one of the most important contributions that women, newly coming into positions of power and responsibility, can make.

There is another concept, another relic of the patriarchal structures of hierarchy and power, that needs re-visiting and re-interpretation and that is the concept of “rank.” It is quite clear to me that women view rank differently from men. For us, rank is not a station in life or a figure of merit.

Rank is the social equivalent of a postal code; it tells others where we work and where our territory can be found. We rejoice when one of our sisters gets a promotion, a new postal code, a larger area of responsibility because of the greater contributions she may be able to make.

But recognizing peoples’ rank is not like grading eggs and a promotion does not imply that someone who has been a Grade A small type has become, by some administrative miracle, a Grade A large one on July 1. Peoples’ human attributes do not change on a change of rank; they do not become better persons or better friends on promotion, nor do they become less valuable human beings if they were not promoted, if they have no rank to parade.

I think that it is really important for women, as they move into positions of responsibility and power, not to be frightened by rank and not to be hypnotized by it either. Each of us can help in the ongoing process of clarifying the notion of rank by extending our unchanging care and friendship to those of our sisters who are promoted, as well as to those who are not.

There is another facet to our discussion for rank and promotion that needs to be mentioned here, lest someone might think rightful and unbiased promotion and advancement for women are now a rule.

Earlier I mentioned that some of the problems, well known to women in engineering, can resurface in new guises. Thus one finds that the gatekeepers of the old order may move from objecting to potential colleagues on the basis of gender, to questioning the legitimacy of their research interests.

In other words, no one in his right mind will say anymore, “I don’t like women in the department.” Yet it is not uncommon for senior staff to insist that any new person hired has to continue the area of research that old Professor what’s-his-name had cultivated so faithfully over the past thirty years – effectively blocking the entry of someone who might want to do different research in a different manner. Gate-keeping regarding research fields happens and bears watching.

We need to be mindful of the danger that the present climate of cutbacks and retrenchments poses to the ongoing advancement of women in engineering. In this context, it is again important to stress that women engineers are not mere substitutes or clones of their male peers, but bring – as women – different perspectives and experiences to their work. All considered, it is certainly not yet plain sailing for women engineers.

My concluding remarks are addressed primarily to the younger women in the audience:

First of all, if you have been helped by your mentors, don’t forget them now. They will be getting old and may need you as you have needed them.

Secondly, don’t forget your feminism and your solidarity with old women. Feminism is not an employment agency for women; feminism is a movement to change relations between people to more egalitarian, caring, and non-hierarchical patterns. Feminism provides a way of life that our society, I feel, desperately requires that we need to practice.

And do remember that, even if the Marc Lepines of this world no longer haunt the engineering faculties of this country, violence in most societies is rising - and usually this means violence against women and children. Don’t be indifferent to their fate.

Those of us who have the privilege of working in an environment in which violence – verbal as well as physical – has become unacceptable, have to assure that such environments are not going to remain exceptions but become the norm.

Finally, be careful and conscientious about the language you use and the images your words evoke. Language is terribly important; it is the vehicle of thought and concept, the medium of learning and re-enforcement of images. Don’t make violence appear normal by using the language of organized violence; why speak about "target audiences."

Surely, you don’t want to shoot your students or clients; you just want to reach those particularly interested. There really are no targets, no conquests, strategic plans or deadlines – only interest groups, changes of attitude and habit, plans and due dates. There is no aiming at, only addressing and responding.

There also remains the need to watch sexism in the language of social and political discourse. Sexism has not yet disappeared – just think of the different connotations of the terms “bag men” and “bag ladies.”

The society that we envisage and work for will care for the homeless – called bag ladies – and have no place for the manipulators of power – called bag men.

With these thoughts that I have put before you for your reflection and use go my good wishes and my thanks for your attention.

more to consider

Ursula always asks the questions:

  • To what purpose is knowledge accumulated?
  • For whose benefit is the new information being used?

These are great questions for us all to ask – whether it’s at school when teachers dump info on us, how we get the news from the TV or when we read the business sections of the newspapers. Who is giving this stuff to us, what’s their agenda and why!

resources for this story

  • To order an informative and colourful poster on Women in Science and Technology/Les femmes en sciences et en technologie, contact Green Dragon Press tel. (416) 251-6366 or fax (416)251-6365 for info and prices.
  • The Real World of Technology, by URSULA FRANKLIN, CBC Enterprises | 1990
  • Faces of Feminism, by PAMELA HARRIS, "Ursula Franklin" pgs 52-53, Second Story Press | 1992
  • Canadian Woman Studies has two issues on women in science and technology. E-mail Canadian Woman Studies or otherwise at 212 Founders College, York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York, ON, Canada M3J 1P3, tel. (416)736-5356, fax (416)736-5765. | Summer 1984 and Winter 1993.

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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