Canadian Consulting Engineer

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Pioneer for Women

For most of us, rising to the top of our profession would be accomplishment enough. Being a woman at the top of a mainly male profession would be an all-consuming challenge.The late Claudette MacKay-L...


Claudette MacKay-Lassonde, P.Eng.
Claudette MacKay-Lassonde, P.Eng.

For most of us, rising to the top of our profession would be accomplishment enough. Being a woman at the top of a mainly male profession would be an all-consuming challenge.

The late Claudette MacKay-Lassonde, P.Eng. met that challenge and kept on going. She held senior positions at Northern Telecom, Xerox and Firelight Investments, served on the board of several corporations, including the AGF Group of Funds and Abitibi-Price, and was finally chair and chief executive officer of Enghouse Systems of Markham, Ontario. Her commitment to improving the environment in which she and her fellow female engineers found themselves was a self-imposed extra-career activity that often resulted in controversy.

“It’s commendable that she would give so much of her time to a cause — or maybe a mission — that’s what it is for me,” says Monique Frize, P.Eng., who holds the NSERC/Nortel Joint Chair for Women in Science and Engineering in Ontario at the universities of Carleton and Ottawa. She credits MacKay-Lassonde with creating the first such chair in the world while she was working at Nortel. Frize was the first person appointed to the historic position at the University of New Brunswick.

Micheline Bouchard, ing., president and chief executive officer of Motorola Canada, remembers when she and MacKay-Lassonde were both working for public utilities. “She was my only contact to discuss the environment we were working in,” Bouchard says. “We (female engineers) were all pioneers. We weren’t sure what was the right behaviour.”

Bouchard’s formal involvement with the women in engineering issue started when MacKay-Lassonde’s asked her to speak at the first Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) conference in 1981. MacKay-Lassonde had founded WISE a few years earlier. “My passion for this issue began with her,” says Bouchard. “She was certainly a pioneer in promoting the advancement and entry of more women in the profession.”

Tremendous progress has been made, thanks to all the work MacKay-Lassonde did, Bouchard says. “There is no discrimination at universities now. Any (discriminatory) behaviours you see now are just a reflection of what happens in society as a whole. Our challenge is not so much to make the profession open to women — this is done. And corporations now appreciate what women can contribute. The next step is how to get more young women to join the profession.”

It will be difficult to replicate MacKay-Lassonde’s passion for the subject of women in engineering. Jean Surrey, P.Eng., is a member of the Women in Engineering Advisory Committee founded by MacKay-Lassonde during her tenure as president of Professional Engineers Ontario. “I’m very glad that women engineers had her as a spokesperson because she carried a lot of weight with people — that is, the men in suits — they listened.”

In 1996, MacKay-Lassonde told an audience at the University of Toronto that her belief in a woman’s right to make her own choices was what made her stand up and want to be heard. “Not every woman aspires to a career in engineering or to reach the top of the profession, but those who do should be given a fair shot,” she said. But she cautioned against believing in role models that appear to “have it all.” Her career interests had taken their toll on her health and resulted in her having fewer children than she might have done, she said. And she had come to understand that balance was the key to personal fulfillment. “You have to decide what is most important to you, accept the costs, and go after it. Realize that you can’t have it all. But you can have what you value most.”Sophie Kneisel

Claudette MacKay-Lassonde died at her home in Toronto in June aged 51 after a long battle with cancer. Born and raised in Montreal, she had degrees in chemical engineering, nuclear engineering and business. She is survived by her husband of 30 years, Pierre, her two children, Julie and Christian, and grandchild Jacob.