Viviane Yargeau, Dean of Engineering, reflects on the anniversary of the Polytechnique tragedy

“This is a time to reflect on the progress we’ve made and to acknowledge how we can continue creating a safer and more inclusive environment for everyone," says McGill's first female Dean of the Faculty of Engineering
Viviane Yargeau
Viviane Yargeau wants EDI to be “a part of the DNA” of the Faculty of EngineeringOwen Egan / Joni Dufour

When Viviane Yargeau was named the first female Dean of the Faculty of Engineering this summer, the significance of the appointment was not lost on her.

“I felt it was a lot of responsibility to be the first [woman], to be honest,” says Yargeau, a Full Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. “I knew the significance it held.”

Now, five months into her first five-year renewable term, Yargeau’s role is about to take on even more significance. On December 6, Yargeau will participate in McGill’s annual memorial to mark the École Polytechnique tragedy that took place on December 6, 1989. That day, fourteen young women – many of them engineering students – were killed in what was then Canada’s deadliest mass shooting. Today, December 6 is commemorated as Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women.

A year and a half after the École Polytechnique tragedy, Yargeau began studying chemical engineering at CEGEP. There, she became the inaugural recipient of the school’s newly created award supporting female engineering students. “I definitely had a personal connection to the event because of that. I remember reading about it, because I wanted to know more about the women who’d lost their lives. The impact was felt well outside the area of Montreal and Quebec, and for a long time.”

Today, McGill has its own 1989 Polytechnique Memorial Scholarships, established in 2020 by Ian Van Cortlandt McLachlin, BEng’60. The scholarships are awarded annually to female undergraduate students, especially those involved in entrepreneurial activities at the McGill Engine Centre. “I’m very grateful they’re in place to support female students in their programs,” says Yargeau.

Allies and obstacles

It was in CEGEP that a chemistry teacher first encouraged Yargeau to pursue engineering – the first of many individuals who helped guide her during her career. “Although it certainly would’ve been helpful to have more female roles models, several male colleagues have been great mentors to me,” she says. “I think some of them were probably more openly feminist than I am.”

Yargeau did encounter some obstacles, recalling an undergraduate internship “where I ended up in an environment where I didn’t feel comfortable as a woman in some of the interactions. It was not a pleasant process.”

On several occasions, “it was male colleagues who played a significant role in defusing those difficult situations, or making someone aware that what they were doing or saying was not appropriate. It’s key to develop a network of allies for those reasons.”

By the time she joined McGill in 2004 as the only female professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, she was used to being in a male-dominated environment. “I was lucky. I really felt supported [by my colleagues], and some of them did not hesitate to check in from time to time. I knew I could share with those colleagues if I had concerns.” It’s the kind of positive experience Yargeau wants everyone to have going forward.

A Faculty first

When Yargeau was appointed Dean, she was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming support she received. “I got a lot of comments I was not expecting,” she says. “I had male colleagues tell me, ‘I’m so happy to have a female Dean at the Faculty and that you’re the first. It’s about time.’”

At the same time, female colleagues told her how meaningful it was for them to finally have a woman as a leader.  “While I was having those discussions I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I haven’t ever had one myself!’”

Perhaps that’s why she initially didn’t see herself in the Dean’s role. “I remember saying, ‘I’ll let someone else break that glass ceiling.’”

Yargeau changed her mind because she understood the impact the appointment could have.

“Sometimes it is difficult for women to see ourselves as leaders because it’s not something we have experienced,” Yargeau says. “As I get older, I realize that role models are key. I saw the possibility of making [progress] more visible.”

The road ahead

Yargeau credits her predecessor, Jim Nicell, for creating a Faculty culture with broad support for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives. “I think I benefitted from that, to be honest, because most people were probably ready for a female leader. It would not have been possible without the contributions of those who came before.”

Going forward, she aims to make EDI “an integral part of our DNA. It’s changed the way we’re recruiting staff and faculty, and now we’re having discussions about approaches for undergraduate recruitment, so we can recruit from a more diverse pool. EDI is not something we do in addition, it’s something we do as part of what we do. And I think that’s the way it can be the most impactful.”

One long-standing initiative is POWE (Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering), a student-led organization that was established in the aftermath of the Polytechnique tragedy. Yargeau has participated in POWE events, which include lab tours, conferences, and networking activities. Fourteen of its members will speak at McGill’s upcoming Polytechnique memorial event.

“I think commemorating this day is a sombre but necessary occasion. We don’t often pause in life; we’re always busy,” says Yargeau. “This is a time to reflect on the progress we’ve made and to acknowledge how we can continue creating a safer and more inclusive environment for everyone.”

On December 6 at noon, McGill will pay tribute to the 14 women killed at École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989. People are invited to take part in the ceremony which will be held at the commemorative plaque and tree located in front of the University Centre (3480 McTavish). Information.