Dear Elon: you missed a few Waterloo women

Billionaire's comments renew debate on female engineers

Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla, co-founder of PayPal, CEO of SpaceX and Hyperloop dreamer, once told Maclean’s he didn’t attend the University of Waterloo because there were more women at Queen’s, a fact he repeated recently in an interview with Queen’s alumni magazine:

“It was a close call for me between Waterloo and Queen’s. I was going to do physics and engineering at Waterloo, but then I visited the campus… and, you may not want to print this… but there didn’t seem to be any girls there! So, I visited Queen’s, and there were girls there. I didn’t want to spend my undergraduate time with a bunch of dudes.”

It sparked a discussion on the social site Reddit and an unexpected official response from Waterloo. In a YouTube video, a campus recruiter leans in and addresses Musk. “You’re right. In the 1990s, our women were significantly outnumbered by a bunch of dudes, as you put it, and we’re sorry for that. I’ll let you in on a little secret though. We may have had one or two women you missed.” She then adds, “we’ve spruced the place up,” and the camera cuts to a recruiter spritzing promotional materials with perfume. She then tours the campus and happens upon Canadian Federation of Engineering Students president Lisa Belbeck, Canada Research Chair Susan Tighe, Engineering Dean Pearl Sullivan and other notable females. The message: Waterloo is welcoming to women.

But the video has offended some who say it makes light of the fact that there are still relatively few women in engineering. Indeed, the proportion in undergraduate programs has stayed stubbornly low. It was 16.1 per cent in 1991, hit 20.6 per cent in 2001 and fell to 17.7 per cent in 2011. Filzah Nasir, a second-year student, pointed this out in a commentary criticizing Musk and the video that was printed in the Iron Warrior, Waterloo’s engineering newspaper. “Musk made a decision to attend a university where he would have a better chance of meeting women,” she writes, “because, of course, men go to university to learn, and women go to university so men can have something pretty to look at.” It goes on to say Waterloo should be “embarrassed” that their program is 81.5 per cent male and that sexism is prevalent, evidenced by posters that “terrorized” women two years ago. They showed Marie Curie and said women scientists would “nuke the whole Planet.”

The video hasn’t gone over well with some commentators on Reddit or YouTube either, where some suggest it was made by a feminist “who can’t take a joke” and others criticize the quality.

Belbeck says the video has been mostly misinterpreted. “It was to poke fun at what Elon said and people are taking it too seriously,” she says, pointing to the scene where recruiters spray perfume on promotional materials. While she won’t speak for other women, she says she hasn’t experienced sexism at Waterloo and wasn’t offended by either Musk’s words or the video. “I thought it was fun.”

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