Connecting the dots: "Everyday" sexism and the École Polytechnique massacre

[Trigger warning: description of violence against women, death threats, homophobia, and fat-shaming]

École Polytechnique massacre memorial, by Bobanny [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

École Polytechnique massacre memorial

December 6th is the anniversary of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, when Mark Lépine murdered 14 women and injured 14 other women and men on the campus of École Polytechnique, an engineering school in Montréal. Pierre Phaneuf remembers that day vividly, despite being only 12 years old at the time: "I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when it happened, and I knew right there that this was Very Wrong." For him, that day was the turning point at which he decided to actively support women and especially women in technology.

This anniversary is important for women in technology in part because it connects obvious, overt crimes against women in technology with the ugly root system of "everyday" sexism that feeds and sustains it. Lépine left a long note explaining why he targeted women: feminists had ruined his life ("les féministes qui m'ont toujours gaché la vie"). In particular, he told people that women in technology caused him to be unable to get a job or complete a university degree in technology.

The motivation behind every comment of "if women wanted to be in tech, they would just do it" on Hacker News traces back to the same basic thought process that motivated Lépine: "As a man in technology, women in technology are taking something away from me – and I will get it back by making women leave technology." Lépine's explanations make it clear that these murders did not occur in isolation: they were shaped and formed by a part of society that feels threatened by women in technology.

Open source community member Christie Koehler recently made a similar point in her blog entry "Death Threats in Open Source are not Occurring in a Vacuum." In this post, she drew the connection between her first online death threat threat, received for speaking up about homophobia, and a post on the Mozilla blog aggregator advocating for the removal of civil rights from LGBTQ people. The difference between "I support the legal definition of marriage which is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman," and "Jesus stop whining you stupid dyke [...] you’re going to end up with your fat throat slit," is only one of level of politeness and recommended implementation. Both come from the same belief: LGBTQ people are not equal to heterosexual people and don't deserve the same rights. These comments reinforce each other and support a culture of violence against LGBTQ people. (Mozilla has now adopted community participation standards governing its blog aggregator.)

Some argue that the École Polytechnique massacre is an isolated incident that had nothing to do with wider society because Mark Lépine may have been mentally ill. While Lépine's mental health at the time of the homicides can't be determined because he committed suicide, mental illness can't be the whole explanation – most mentally ill people are not violent, much less mass murderers. Lépine's note explaining his motivations shows they weren't developed in isolation: he repeats stock complaints about maternity leave, women in the Olympics, and cheaper insurance giving women undue advantage over men. Praise of Lépine's as a hero by modern men's rights activists is more evidence that his actions are part of a larger societal movement. In the end, 14 women died because they were women at an engineering school, in a society that feared the growing power of women.

Murder of women in technology, death threats to women in technology, and nasty comments about women in technology are not the same thing, but they grow from the same roots and support each other. Words lead to actions, words support actions, words are themselves actions. The next time you want to speak up about sexism in technology, but aren't sure why it matters, remember the École Polytechnique massacre, and the way that words grow into deeds.