12/06/2017 10:13 EST | Updated 12/06/2017 10:41 EST

28 Years After The Montreal Massacre, Sexism Remains Deadly

While women have made leaps and bounds in the workforce since the Montreal Massacre, the spectrum of sexism remains pervasive

Each year since I can remember, I shed tears on December 6. In Canada, it's a national day of remembrance for the worst mass shooting in our history. When it was over, the horror of the tragedy at the hands of Marc Lépine at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1989 would leave 14 young women dead. Since that horrible night, an effort to understand his motive has guided the discourse around Violence Against Women — his motivations informed books, articles and television shows.

But it was never his motivations that I wanted to understand, it was theirs: those 14 young women. Of the 14, 12 were engineering students at Canada's pre-eminent engineering school. At a time when only 12 per cent of engineering students were women, they weren't just brilliant: they were brave. They were set to enter a male-dominant world for what I assume to be a love of engineering.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Demonstrators hold portraits of some of the victims of the Montreal Massacre during the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Dec. 6, 2011.

Every year as I mourn these women, I wish I could talk to them about their motivations and feelings regarding their career choice, because my admiration for women who are leaders in spaces that are often hostile environments is beyond articulation. When I think of that night, I think of how Canada didn't only lose 14 of her daughters; we lost 14 of our leaders.

Just a few months ago, a male chemical engineer confidently told me that men are smarter than women, and are "just better at certain jobs." This was said to me, the CEO of G(irls)20, an organization specifically designed to support women's advancement in their careers through leadership opportunities, global experiences and mentorship. If that was said to my face, what did he say about women behind our backs? And more importantly, how does he treat women in his work space?

We know that the work space remains one of intimidation, silent complacency and even danger for women.

The link between this type of casual sexism and deadly misogyny is clear: they exist on a spectrum that sees women's role in society as limited and less important. While women have made leaps and bounds in the workforce since the Montreal Massacre, this spectrum of sexism remains pervasive and deadly.

In the wake of the ongoing sexual harassment allegations against men across all industries, I have not heard one woman express surprise. We know that the work space remains one of intimidation, silent complacency and even danger for women.

While almost all women raised their hand last month to say "me too," many of us are proud to work and to see our identity wrapped closely with our career accomplishments. I have had the privilege and good fortune to have a career that grips me and challenges me; it keeps me up at night, but only because I want to do my work better.

Shaun Best / Reuters
Family members of Montreal Massacre victim Anne-Marie Edward hug during a memorial service in Montreal, on Dec. 5, 1999.

I love leading G(irls)20, because it means helping other young women find work that is meaningful for them, and to occupy spaces where women have rarely had a voice. When women, especially women from visible minorities, the LGBTQ community, those with disabilities and newcomers to Canada, are afforded the same access, training, respect, and opportunities to be successful in their chosen fields, we all win. Because while companies with greater levels of inclusion often show higher profits, we should not need those stats to be convinced that women deserve safe spaces and the opportunity to find joy and fulfillment in their studies and work.

When I talk to young women entering challenging spaces — be it STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics,) politics or the business sector — I am proud that the workplace misogyny doesn't stop them from diving in and achieving their dreams.

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I think of the 14 women who died on this night, 28 years ago, and the trail they blazed for today's young female engineers, business students and politically activists. Their names are Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, and I shed tears for them and their loved ones.

But after the tears are wiped away, I use this day to recommit myself to honouring their memories the best way I know how: working hard to support young women around the world and across Canada to continue shattering the ceilings those 14 young women started cracking a long time ago.

By: Heather Barnabe, CEO, G(irls)20

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