This is a guest post from Christine Cheng. She is a research fellow in politics at Exeter College, University of Oxford. In a previous life, she studied systems design engineering and was student government president at the University of Waterloo. This post was originally published at her blog.
(Trigger Warning for survivors of the Ã‰cole Polytechnique Massacre and survivors of campus threats against women)
This post is in honour of International Womenâ€™s Day (March 8th).
Recent events at my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, have left a bad taste in my mouth. In mid-February, in the middle of student government elections, someone covered up the posters of female candidates with an image of Marie Curie, a nuclear explosion and the following slogan â€œThe brightest woman this Earth ever created was Marie Curie, The mother of the nuclear bomb. You tell me if the plan of women leading men is still a good idea!â€ A poster with the same image was also put up with similarly alarming text: â€œKill 250 000 innocent Japanese in WW2 and is given 2 Nobel Prizes. Expose the defective Moral Intelligence of Womankind and it is called Sexismâ€œ. It had the caption: â€œMarie Curie = evilâ€.
Later on, this person sent out a fake email purporting to be Feridun Hamdullahpur, the University of Waterlooâ€™s President. In this mass email, the message railed against â€œagainst women in leadership and women attending universityâ€œ.
This was followed up by a Facebook profile, presumably from the same person:
When a bad idea comes to this Earth it always hides behind The Shield of Vulnerability. This way it is immune from being attacked in the open. Radioactive Technology was hiding behind the vulnerable looking mask of Marie Curie and this is why no one caught it in advance. They figured that if a female was pushing it then it was harmless. They figured wrong. The truth is that overeducated women are truly dangerous. If they donâ€™t know right from wrong they will nuke the whole Planet and call it the latest fashion from Holt Renfrew. This is the truth. The world is in trouble today because the higher moral intelligence of men is not in charge anymore. How long will you let this continue? The choice is in your hands. I didnâ€™t leave posters on your campus because I am a fool. I left them because I am your father who is concerned about where your education is ultimately going. You are being taught the virtues of gender equality when gender equality is nowhere in the Orginial Plan of Creation. Queen Elizabeth is leading you astray and charging you big money for this evil favour. When you graduate from here you will have a degree but no real intelligence. This is the truth.
There have been at least two stories in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on the case, an article posted on the Macleanâ€™s website, and now, an article on Jezebel. The UW campus police are investigating: â€œforensic analysis of the posters; review of closed-circuit television footage; and collaboration with computer specialists to track the identity of the individual who sent [the] impersonating email fraudulently.â€
These are the facts that I have been able to cobble together. While I am loathe to give any legitimacy to the person who has done all of this, I felt that it was more important to post these comments so that readers can get a better sense of why I was alarmed. It may be the case that this person was just trolling and stirring up trouble. But if you take these sentiments at face value, this person comes across as off-balance and in need of counselling.
Obviously, this is not representative of how the larger UW community feels about female scientists, female students, and female leaders. The University of Waterloo as an institution, in my experience, has been quite sensitive to gender issues on campus (though Prof Shannon Dea eloquently disagrees with me in her post on this issue). Having assertive and capable female leaders at all levels of the institution has helped.
Yet this is not just about the misogynistic acts that have been committed, but it is also about how the larger community chooses to respond to these acts. Sadly, in addition to the many constructive conversations that have taken place as a result of these incidents, other comments have been less than helpful, to say the least. For example, Bill Li, a current UW computer science student had this to say in response to a female student who was extremely upset about the events:
Really Sherlock? UW is a male dominated campus, I wonder whyâ€¦ oh, letâ€™s see, UW is in the top for Engineering, Math, and CS, given that most girls doesnâ€™t want to give the effort and sacrifice needed to go through the Engineering or Math program at UW, you are going to bitch and cry that the university is male dominated? Really? So if you want a female dominated campus, try â€œBryn Mawr Collegeâ€.
You have no right to bitch that the campus is too male dominated, when there are literally no girls in the Engineer or Math faculty, even though there are scholarships and extra benefits given to females that are in the Math faculty.
I have seen similarly insensitive posts on other sites. Bill seems to agree that these incidents were wrong, but he fails to grasp that his comments contribute to making women in his program feel unwelcome. Women like me graduated from computer science and engineering despite sentiments like these, which thankfully, were extremely rare in my corner of UW.
Part of the reason that Iâ€™m posting about this is because it feels like I could just as easily have been the target of these incidents. I studied systems design engineering at Waterloo in the late 1990s. I was surrounded by amazing, accomplished female classmates. One third of my class was female (and none of us dropped out). I also ran for and became president of my student government at Waterloo. Those posters could just as easily have been mine.
There is also a larger social and historical context to this story that should not be forgotten. Twenty-two years ago, on December 6th, 1989, Marc LÃ©pine, walked into the Ã‰cole Polytechnique (part of the engineering school at the UniversitÃ© de MontrÃ©al), then shot and killed fourteen female students, and wounded ten other women and four men. If you read the coronerâ€™s report about how the men and women were systematically separated before the women were all shot in the name of feminism, or watch Denis Villeneuveâ€™s film Polytechnique about the Montreal Massacre, a chill will run down your spine. This event casts a long shadow over incidents like those at UW.
In 1998, during my last year as an engineering student at Waterloo, I organized the Fourteen Not Forgotten Memorial. I exchanged emails with Chris Redmond, the editor of UWâ€™s daily newsletter, about why the memorial was important in spite of the fact that gender didnâ€™t seem to be much of an issue with my cohort. He posted part of our exchange online. I donâ€™t completely agree with everything that was said by my 23 year-old self anymore, but I do think the issues I raised back then are still relevant thirteen years later. Here is an excerpt:
I understood [when I was 14] that the gunman was a sociopathic killer, but I had no explanation as to how this could have possibly happened in the world that I had grown up in. His irrational behaviour didnâ€™t fit into my model of how things worked and I had no reason to think of him as anything other than an extremist, someone who would not and could not listen to reason. My solution was to exclude him from my world, to cast him out. I guess this also meant that, to some extent, I ignored the impact of what he had done and the hatred that he represented. There was nothing in my social conditioning that allowed me to understand his deep-seated despisal of women, and in particular, of feminists.
Now, nine years later, I have a slightly better sense of the methodically rational side of his actions. After all, it was not in a rage of passionate fury that he committed these murders. A virtual hit list was found on his body consisting of fifteen high-profile women: these included the first woman firefighter in QuÃ©bec, the first woman police captain in QuÃ©bec, a sportscaster, a bank manager and a president of a teachersâ€™ union.
Society recognizes that he was a psychopath â€” but to what extent was he a product of social influences, and how much of it was sheer and utter isolated madness? [Chris and I] talked about the continuum and where this event would sit on this continuum. I donâ€™t have an answer for this. What I do know is that it was and still is, to a greater or lesser extent, a reflection of societyâ€™s attitudes towards women.
So we must ask ourselves: How do these attitudes filter down through the rest of society? When a male classmate jokingly says to me that I won my scholarship because I am female, how am I supposed to interpret that? How does that relate to the fact that the killer felt that these women got into engineering because they were female? He certainly felt that they were taking up his â€œrightfulâ€ place in the program. Am I taking up the â€œrightfulâ€ place of another disgruntled male in systems design engineering?
[Marc LÃ©pine] committed an extreme act, but society is at a crossroads right now â€” we value womenâ€™s equality, but the lingering effects of centuries of discrimination [are] not going to disappear overnight and we have to recognize that together. [Women] are valued [equally] in the eyes of the law. But in practice, systematic discrimination still goes on, even if it isnâ€™t as obvious as it used to be.
I know that these recent events were â€œisolated incidentsâ€, but I think that they still raise broader issues of gender equality that are worth discussing. Comments on other sites also suggest that while gender was never an issue for me at UW, it has been an issue for other women.
While I hope that this is just a trolling incident that has gotten out of hand, there is a distinct possibility that there is worse to come. In light of the Montreal Massacre and my previous comments on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and the power of political rhetoric, this conversation about womenâ€™s equality is clearly one that needs to continue.
* * *
For more constructive commentary on these incidents, E. Cain suggests some concrete measures for improving campus safety, Macleanâ€™s discussed the importance of hate crime legislation, and UW campus leaders gathered to discuss the problem. Shannon Dea has a thought-provoking piece in Hook and Eye.Â Also check out the commentary following the Jezebel article.
Sidenote: On the accuracy of the claims about Marie Curie, see Luke Bovardâ€™s piece: the honest truth: Marie Curie.
Update: Bill Xin Li took down his post on this topic but before he did so, he decided to troll someone who sent him an unfavourable response. Preferring not to do further damage to this personâ€™s reputation by providing another link to what was written, suffice it to say that it was rude and inappropriate. Letâ€™s keep this clean and constructive.