Introducing the Women in STEM Oral History Project

Archives and Special Collections

By Meghan Tibbits-Lamirande

Storyteller-in-residence, uOttawa Library

I want to be an engineer just like my mom
Ontario Ministry of Labour, Women’s Bureau. “I want to be an engineer just like my mom.” Poster (c .1979-1989) Canadian Women’s Movement Archives Collection, University of Ottawa Archives and Special Collections (10-001-S5-I511).
In the Fall semester of 2023, The Archives and Special Collections (ARCS), with support from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and the Canadian Institute of Women in Engineering and Sciences (CIWES), undertook a series of ten oral history interviews with women in Canada who have made a significant impact on the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).

As the coordinator of this project, my goal was to interview women from a wide variety of STEM fields, who would bring alternative historical, geographical, and cultural perspectives to the archives, and hopefully provide a more complete picture of women’s historical relationship to STEM in Canada. 

I want to be an engineer just like my mom
Ontario Ministry of Labour, Women’s Bureau. “I want to be an engineer just like my mom.” Poster (c .1979-1989) Canadian Women’s Movement Archives Collection, University of Ottawa Archives and Special Collections (10-001-S5-I511).

In their interviews, these experts not only provide divergent perspectives on the field, but also on feminism, racial justice, and STEM’s role in achieving and/or preventing social equity. Taken together, the interviews have tremendous historical value as an archive of women’s experience in STEM, from the final decades of the 20th century until our present moment. They also help us understand what it was like to learn and to work in male-dominated environments which were potentially encouraging, or potentially hostile, to women. Writing as a woman who was born in the mid-1990s, it is easy to forget that the opportunities we have now only exist because the women who came before us struggled against a culture, an economic system, and an educational system which openly designated them as intellectually inferior.

Through conducting these interviews, I learned what it was like to be a woman in STEM during a time when women were just beginning to enter fields that were almost entirely male, almost entirely white, and at times incredibly spiteful towards diverse perspectives. One thing that stood out to me was that working as a woman in STEM did not simply involve getting a degree and attending job interviews. Many of the women I interviewed faced real threats of physical violence to stand where they are today. For the engineers, of course, The École Polytechnique massacre of women engineering students which took place December 6th, 1989, stands out as a defining moment in the development of their feminist politics; the attacker claimed that he was “fighting feminism.” He killed fourteen women and injured fourteen others, before turning the gun on himself. 

While the Montreal Massacre has now been memorialized as a misogynistic attack on women, women engineers and activists had to fight for it to be recognized as such. In fact, many in the Canadian media became enraged at the suggestion that violence against women might be a widespread societal problem. For example, in the radio program “54 Rock” broadcast on December 11, 1989, journalist Earl McRae argued that "a frightening number of feminists in this country are politicizing the tragedy for their own idiotic, pea-brained purposes." He blamed "dim-bulbed feministas" for creating an environment in which women are supposed to be living in fear. He also accused feminists of being just as sick as the shooter himself, noting that women who live in fear of men "demean themselves and their silly misguided philosophy" and prove that "they're empty-headed, misguided fools." McRae's opinion, which was reprinted in the Ottawa Citizen on March 14, 1990, demonstrates how Canadian feminists were openly vilified in the late 1980s, and illustrates the extent to which standards for journalistic integrity have changed over time. 

Rally together to confront the sexist violence of Earl McCrae and 54 Rock
Helen Levine. “Rally together to confront the sexist violence of Earl McCrae and 54 Rock.” Poster (1989) Helen Levine fonds, University of Ottawa Archives and Special Collections (10-006-S5-I104).

As a result of articles and broadcasts like McRae’s, the women engineers that I interviewed had to contend not only with the tragedy of the Montreal massacre, but also with its minimization in Canadian media. Dr. Tyseer Aboulnasr, an Egyptian Canadian electrical engineer, describes how the massacre forced her to think about the layout of her office in terms of security; her office at UBC had two separate entrances, and she rearranged its seating plan so that she might better protect her staff members if someone decided to attack her. Coming from Egypt, where she was simply “an engineer,” Dr. Aboulnasr also had to adjust to her new status as a “woman engineer” in Canada. This is another theme which cuts across each interview: the burden of representation foisted upon women in STEM, who feel additional pressure to succeed as a representative of their minority group or groups. Like Dr. Aboulnasr, several of my interviewees were reticent to adopt the “feminist” label, worrying that doing so might compromise their career trajectory or detract from their scientific work.

In these interviews, there are many other examples of women’s struggle against violent forces: when she began her post-secondary education at the University of Buenos Aires, the Argentine Canadian computer scientist Dr. Veronica Dahl had to study under a military dictatorship which targeted intellectuals, and especially students of logic, throughout the period of state terrorism in Argentina which took place from 1974 to 1983. Dr. Dahl, who has since been recognized as one of the fourteen founders of logic programming, took part in protests and sit-ins where she risked her own personal security to stand up for education.

Similarly, Dr. Nikki Colodny, who worked as a psychotherapist and abortion provider during a time when most doctors were male, was consistently harassed for offering reproductive health care. Yet she continued to provide women with care, despite anti-choice protesters who followed her on her lunch break to shout insults and threats and picketed her son’s tenth birthday party. Dr. Maydianne Andrade, an expert in evolutionary biology and arachnology, also described how police violence against George Floyd and other young Black men prompted her to cofound the Canadian Black Scientists’ Network in 2020. She also discussed how Black Canadians are still vastly underrepresented in university STEM programs. 

Women's Biology - Womans Work
University of Winnipeg Women’s Studies. “Science and Women. Women’s Biology – Woman’s Work: Do Biological Differences Between Women and Men Justify Job Ghettos?” Poster for event featuring Karen Messing (1988) Canadian Women’s Movement Archives Collection

In addition to supplementing the interviewees’ well-known research portfolios with personal stories and challenges, some of which were emotionally difficult to recollect, this project also suggests that the feminist concept of “double-duty” for working mothers often becomes a “triple-duty” for women working in STEM fields, who incur the additional task of promoting and encouraging other women in STEM. During her early career, Dr. Karen Messing faced condemnation for her status as a single mother and her decision to live alternatively, in a commune; she also had to fight for the legitimacy of her ergonomics research, which has since been credited with spearheading the inclusion of women workers and gender analysis within occupational health studies. While their male counterparts are free to focus entirely on their own research, many women in STEM feel compelled to help transform the field itself.

Many of the interviews conducted for this project celebrate women’s contributions to STEM, given the difficulties they often faced in having their work taken seriously. However, Dr. Kim TallBear’s interview reminds us how scientific research has been used, historically, as a tool of colonial oppression. In fact, scientific research served as one of the primary objectives and justifications for Canada’s genocidal residential school system. As Dr. TallBear notes in her interview, for example, historians have chronicled mid-20th century nutrition experiments which were conducted on Indigenous children and elderly people in Canada. Instead of addressing settler violence, incarceration within residential schools, and the Canadian government’s systemic elimination of Indigenous culture and lifeways, scientific researchers sought to locate the “problem” within Indigenous bodies and biology. However, Dr. TallBear, who currently serves as the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience, and Society, firmly believes that scientific research can also be deployed as a tool for Indigenous self-governance.

Encouraging the participation of women in STEM, and especially Indigenous, Black, and racialized women in STEM, is not simply in service of “diversity” as a standard liberal talking point but helps guide us toward a future in which technical knowledge might be used primarily for solidarity and for building community, as opposed to repression and domination. In fact, each of my interviewees stressed communal support networks as crucial to their eventual success, whether than network involved other women in STEM, supportive men in STEM, mentors, family ties, or a partner willing to take on the domestic labour at home. Ultimately, the project team hopes that these interviews will provide researchers with a wealth of information about STEM as a crucial site of women’s historical struggle for liberation in Canada.

We invite you to view the interviewee biographies and to listen to all ten interviews from The Women in STEM Oral History Project.

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