Monique Aubry Frize, engineering pioneer and gender equality activist

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OTTAWA – Monique Aubry Frize was the first Canadian woman to obtain a Bachelor of Applied Science from the University of Ottawa in 1966. A professor specializing in electrical engineering, in 1989 she became the first woman to hold the women’s chair in engineering at the University of Ottawa. ‘University of New Brunswick. She has received several honorary doctorates and distinctions in recognition of her significant participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). On March 8, she was awarded the prestigious Persons Case Award, which honors Canadians who advance gender equality.

As a researcher and engineer in the biomedical field, you are the author of numerous publications and have collaborated in the development of medical tools. What are the major advances to which you have contributed?

I participated in several projects, but let’s say that my achievements were related to clinical decision support systems. What had to be done above all was to help with diagnosis in hospitals and to predict complications. In particular, I worked on the design of an artificial intelligence system for neonatal intensive care units.

In 1971, I worked at Notre-Dame Hospital in Montreal, as a biomedical engineer. I also created a tool for surgeons in the 70s and it was patented. This concerned the cause of burns during surgical operations via a particular tool.

I also assessed the danger between pacemakers and electromagnetic interference. Then I was chief of service in seven hospitals in Moncton. It was also a very good period for me.

Monique Frize in her office at the Dumont Hospital, Moncton, in 1989, Courtesy

You are a role model for female engineers, and you have been very active in promoting STEM to women. In your book A Women Engineer – Memoirs of a Trailblazeryou explain that you faced obstacles and barriers as a woman entering a non-traditional career in the 1960s. More than 50 years later, what is your assessment?

When I started college in 1963 to study electrical engineering, I was the only woman out of 12 men in the class. I understood the problem very quickly. A lot of girls were told, “You can’t do engineering, it’s for boys.”

Conversely, boys were favoured, for reasons that weren’t really valid. The girls were very discouraged.

I remember that in 2015 the British Nobel laureate in medicine, Tim Hunt, told conference participants that female colleagues should work in a female-only environment. He said, “Three things happen when they’re in a lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

Things have changed since, that’s for sure, but there’s still a lot to do. And that’s been my job all my life. I think I’ve always been a feminist, but I didn’t know it. I’ve always been a fighter, especially for women. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted justice and equality. Then it has always been like this in my family: my father fought for a very long time for French-speaking writers, librarians and writers.

You have taken part in a significant number of conferences all over the world, academic projects, chairs… all this to open up the profession to women. And I quote Ursula Franklin that you mention many times “engineering must be open to women and not the other way around that women must correspond to engineering”.

The engineering profession needs women more than women need engineering. It’s very complicated, because engineers, in my time, continued to promote masculine and macho in the field.

Women who come into engineering seem to come from higher than average social and economic backgrounds. Men seem less open to change, it may be related to their social background, this should be studied. This culture is unfortunately maintained, because there are not enough women. A sociological study explained that it is only with a minimum of 30% of women who join a field that we are likely to see change.

Monique Aubry Frize engineering pioneer and gender equality activist
Mme Frize in Paris, February 1970. Courtesy

Engineer Canada has a program called 30 en 30, which aims to increase the rate of female engineers to 30% by 2030. Another thing is that we need more female professors, we should be capable of accelerating their careers.

But, too many women wanted to be accepted by this majority of men, the one who dominated the world of engineering. They participated in the wrong way. They sometimes wrote very sexist articles. Not all women of course!

What is the purpose of the Canadian Archives of Women in STEM fonds that you carry out at the University of Ottawa?

We launched it in 2014, and this project aims to collect, locate and make accessible the greatest number of historical documents produced by women over the centuries. We focus on stories, research and even artifacts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are several documentary collections that can be used to enrich knowledge and support research.

This project started with Marina Bokovay who is the head of the archives, then with Claire Deschênes, Ruby Heap and myself. Of course, we are collaborating on this project with the University of Ottawa Library, Archives Canada and the Canadian Institute for Women in Engineering and Science (CIWES). This is a very important project, because women are invisible in books that talk about science and engineering. This fund will allow historians to write the history of these women in Canada.

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Ms. Frize’s medals: the Order of Canada, the Golden Jubilee Medal and the Diamond Jubilee Medal. Image credit: Steve Russell

We hope to be able to expand the project. My research, more than 60 boxes, is there as well as that of Claudette Mackay Lassonde, thanks to the donation of her husband. In total, we managed to locate over 400 women’s documents across the country.

Do you have any plans for the future?

Yes, I started to write 200 pages on the history of CIWES and its conferences which started in 1964. It is extraordinary, because these conferences started when there were very few women in engineering. We are writing this book together with Claire and Ruby, we hope to publish it in November. Then of course, I have personal projects of shorter stories, to complete what I have already written in my memoirs.

Do you have any advice for women?

I had a lot of support from my son and my husband. It allowed me to have the career that I had. And one thing is certain: women must assert themselves and have confidence in themselves. I always said to the young girls I met, especially in schools: “Choose your partners even more carefully than your career, because that will allow you to have a career”. It’s not a women’s issue, it’s a social issue and male input and participation is surely needed. »

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Portrait taken from the 1966 yearbook. Source: University of Ottawa


1942: Birth in Montreal

1989: Became the first University Chair for Women in Engineering at the University of New Brunswick

1993: Named an Officer of the Order of Canada

1997: Became Ontario Women’s Chair in Science and Engineering

2002: Co-founded INWES, a global network of women’s organizations in STEM

2007: Appointed President of CIWES (Canadian Institute for Women in Engineering and Science)

2014: Launch of the Canadian Archives of Women in STEM to develop a center of expertise to document the stories of the women who contributed to it.

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Monique Aubry Frize, engineering pioneer and gender equality activist

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