As a leading figure at Polytechnique Montréal, Maud Cohen stands out for at least two reasons. In 2022, she became the very first woman to be appointed president of this 150-year-old institution. And unlike her predecessors, she was neither a professor nor held a PhD. Instead, this straight-A student rose to Quebec’s upper echelons of institutional governance through sheer ambition and hard work.
As she tells it, her rich career was built brick-by-brick on a rock-solid foundation of motivation and facing challenges head-on. Her five-star industrial engineering resumé includes an MBA at HEC Montréal, posts in Europe and North America, and seats on several boards of directors. Prior to her appointment as director of Polytechnique, Ms. Cohen headed the Centre hospitalier universitaire Sainte-Justine foundation.
“I was an only child. My mother, who hadn’t finished high school, put a lot of pressure on me. Like many women in the 70s and 80s, she experienced feminism vicariously through her daughter,” she explained. With her stellar grades, Ms. Cohen initially set her sights on medicine, albeit half-heartedly. She wondered how she’d be able to dissect a cadaver if she couldn’t even bear to dissect a rat. As she considered her career options in CEGEP, the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre served as an eye-opener. “I realized women were studying engineering,” she says. “It was unheard of.” And so, with a knack for math and physics, she enrolled at “Poly” in electrical engineering.
She soon changed course. Industrial engineering, with its macroscopic approach that combines scientific, technical and logistical knowledge, was much more appealing to her. This change meant an extra year to finish her degree, but she’d found her field. Twenty-six years later, this trial-and-error experience influences her vision of the university she now leads. “Polytechnique has to offer an environment that nurtures the development of young adults, but it must also be able to give them a second chance. For me, that played a major role.”
Starting in 1996, she began an eight-year stint as a project manager, taking on larger and larger projects within different structures. But then, she hit a ceiling: “There was no more room for advancement,” she recalled. “So I started thinking about management. I decided to enroll in an MBA program.”
Like a magic key, her MBA from HEC Montréal unlocked seats on the boards of Loto-Québec, Gestion FÉRIQUE and Aéroports de Montréal. It also eased her way into the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (2013–14), where she initially sat on the finance committee, then was appointed vice-president only two years later, and finally, president. This experience confirmed her skills as a spokesperson. Looking back, she said, “I feel at home in an organization with a societal role where science, technology and management intersect.”
But another challenge beckoned, and it was close to her heart. Ms. Cohen accepted the position of executive director of the CHU Sainte-Justine foundation. Over seven and a half years, she worked to increase research funding. This culminated in a 30 per cent rise in donations in five years. Then the pandemic struck, bringing with it a host of crises to manage. She remained at the helm of the foundation through the storm, then set sail for new horizons when the skies cleared.
“Polytechnique… It was beyond my wildest dreams,” she humbly admitted. The venerable institution, a breeding ground for tomorrow’s engineers, wanted to breathe new air into its leadership. It sought a president with a broad vision, someone who could rally people together but also have the chutzpah to advance the institution’s interests with public and private partners. The challenges are quite literally enormous: the student population has doubled to more than 10,000 since 2005-06, and the university needs 25,000m2 more space.
“Polytechnique’s mission and societal role appealed to me,” Ms. Cohen explained. “I saw that a major shift was needed to keep pace with the changing world.” She recently made an impassioned case for this vision before the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, promoting the values of social responsibility and inclusivity she holds dear. She proudly reminded the assembled political decision-makers and economic stakeholders that Polytechnique consists of “10,432 students from 128 nationalities in 12 different engineering fields.” In her galvanizing speech, she addressed organizational issues and called for a universal commitment to responsible and equitable progress in the midst of the energy transition.
What will the next generation of engineers look like? She envisions them as critical thinkers who thoroughly understand sustainable development issues and can weave ethical and sociological considerations into their work. Just a few months after taking office, Ms. Cohen organized a major forum calling on students, faculty, staff and industrial partners to share their thoughts on how to push the profession forward and promote change in university training. According to the participants, achieving that goal will require greater social conscience and responsibility on the part of engineers.
A unifying force
“Maud Cohen knows how to recognize everyone’s contribution. She makes each person in the organization feel important,” said Laura Ahunon, a former president of Polytechnique’s graduate student association who sat on the advisory committee that recommended Ms. Cohen. At no loss for compelling examples, she noted that Maud opened department meetings to administrative and support staff. “My lab technician, who’s been there for 20 years, says Ms. Cohen changed her life. We’re entering a whole new era.”
The praise is just as strong from higher up the ladder. François Bertrand, vice-president of research and innovation, hailed the “contagiously positive energy” Maud’s leadership brings. “I feel supported and at ease. She’s quick to express appreciation, which is a rare trait.”
Her speeches focus on the importance of integrity—a cornerstone of transparency in engineering—and on inclusiveness. She readily admits that “fostering diversity on our management teams is one of our greatest challenges.”
Gender equality remains a long way off in this male-dominated field. When Ms. Cohen was studying for her bachelor’s degree, only 20 per cent of graduates were women. Two decades later, the number sits at 30 per cent. “I’m very proud,” she said, “but I’m also convinced we can do better.”
“To achieve parity, we’ll have to push our thinking,” she conceded. “We worked to accelerate women’s engineering careers… now it’s time to do the same with teaching,” she insisted, noting that only 17 per cent of faculty are women. To change this trend, the university needs to be more open to non-traditional candidates like entrepreneurs and less concerned with publishing volume, which puts mothers at a disadvantage.
Although she is the first woman to lead Polytechnique, Ms. Cohen believes that measures like the parity policy for Canada Research Chairs can be hard to enforce. “Current gender ratios mean that the next woman we hire would automatically be awarded a Chair, even if it results in qualified men being overlooked. In our community, affirmative action would be disproportionate because it’s not realistic.” This unabashed frankness is one of Ms. Cohen’s trademarks, an authentic leader who steadfastly remains true to herself.