Defying social conventions, breaking the glass ceiling... these are expressions that could define Monique Aubry Frize's illustrious career. In the book A Woman in Engineering, Memoirs of a Trailblazer. An Autobiography by Monique (Aubry) Frize, published on December 17, 2019, by the University of Ottawa Press, Dr. Frize recalls her youth in Montreal and Ottawa, her interest in mathematics and science, her entry into the world of engineering and her battle against the prejudices and stereotypes that marked her path.
In 1966, she became the first woman to graduate from the University of Ottawa with a degree in engineering. An internationally renowned biomedical engineer, she also worked to improve the role of women in scientific fields. Professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa, pioneer and women's activist, Monique Aubry Frize is also a recipient of the Order of Canada and two Queen’s Jubilee medals.
She agreed to answer our questions.
1- Why did you decide to write your memoirs?
My professional background was quite unique at the time, so I had several experiences to share. In addition, during the years I held a Chair for Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), I gained a lot of knowledge about the barriers that prevent young women from considering a career in these fields and I identified several strategies to increase the number of women who choose this path. I wanted to share my knowledge on gender issues in order to accelerate progress and avoid starting from scratch. I also hope that my book will help young women and men overcome obstacles and persevere in achieving their goals.
2- You are a pioneer for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). What would you consider the greatest success in your career?
There are some successes I am proud of: graduating in Electrical Engineering in 1966 from the University of Ottawa and obtaining the Athlone Scholarship to complete a master's degree in London are two memorable milestones. The most advanced intellectual test was my doctoral studies in the Netherlands. I am proud to have completed it in a year and a half, while working full time as a biomedical engineer, in 1989. I was 47 years old. Getting a position as an engineering professor and being appointed to the Women in Engineering Chair after my PhD was also a big step for me. From a professional point of view, my academic years were the most satisfying.
3- In your first book published in 2009, The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering (University of Ottawa Press), one of your goals was to demystify the stereotypes that hinder girls and women in science and engineering. 10 years later, are there still challenges ahead?
I must admit that the progress I see in 2019 is far from what I expected when I published my book The Bold and the Brave in 2009. All strategies to increase the number of women at all levels, from high school to university, from industry to professional management, were clear and achievable. Progress can be seen in the number of women enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs in engineering and science, as well as among female professors. But there are still several departments where there are few or no female professors, and it is rare to see women in senior management in industry or academia. There have also been periods of decline, such as in 2002, when the number of women in engineering fell from 22% to 17%. Some universities are now seeing a resurgence, with nearly 30% of women in the undergraduate program.
4- In this book (A Woman in Engineering: Memoirs of a Trailblazer), you revisit several moments in your life, including the tragedy at Polytechnique on December 6, 1989. How did this event affect your journey, your mission in life?
The massacre completely changed the program of the Women in Engineering Chair. On December 11, 1989, instead of starting to work in my office at the University of New Brunswick, I attended a funeral in Montreal's cathedral. After feeling great pain for the loss of these 14 young women, I felt angry and I swore I would not stop my efforts until 14,000 women became engineers. 10 years later, in 1999, there were 15,000 new female engineers!
The impact of the Polytechnique massacre on my work was enormous; I went into fifth gear, reading everything I could about gender issues and giving 35 speeches a year, with an equivalent number of interviews in the media, across the country. Following each intervention, many people continued working in their communities. In February 1990, the Canadian Committee on Women in Engineering was launched at Polytechnique. I was part of a group of 19 people who worked hard for two years to release a report in April 1992 that clearly announced how to move the situation forward in all its aspects.
5- What would you like the readers to remember from this book?
I think that self-confidence is the most important quality to develop in girls, especially when they become teenagers. Believe in yourself! Avoid having the impostor syndrome. I myself felt it a few times, but I told myself to remember my skills and expertise. I was able to ignore these negative feelings and I kept pursuing my goals. I would like all women who choose a career in engineering or science to consider whether they should work to improve their self-confidence. Above all, I hope that women will enjoy their work and that university culture and industry will appreciate their contributions.
6- What message would you like to offer to all young women who wish to one day break into the STEM field?
I have one fundamental piece of advice: find mentors at every stage of your education and career, especially when you are considering making a change or facing barriers. The mentors I had allowed me to make many good decisions when I was facing a challenge or new opportunities. Another tip: become a member of women's organizations in our field. They allow us to realize that we are not alone. We can benefit from interactions with other professional women.
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