Pictures of a bikini-clad woman posing next to a race car were splashed on auto blogs as far away as Italy last week, but not for the usual reason. The woman was, in fact, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Waterloo who had worked on the chassis design for the student-built car, and the dust-up was over the fact that the 20-year-old, and her entire team, had been reprimanded for the “unauthorized photo shoot” in U of W’s lab.
Some students commend the decision. But many say the punishment was unfair and sends the wrong message to female engineering students. (At Waterloo, women make up 17 per cent of the engineering class.)
The full-length bikini shot was a requirement for a charity calendar the student hoped to be selected for, according to Michael Seliske, who took the pictures last month. “She wanted to show that she’s both feminine and capable of working on cars,” says Seliske, a third-year computer engineering student, who uploaded the photos to his blog. (The student in the pictures declined to be interviewed.)
Trouble is, they eventually caught the attention of Adel Sedra, the dean of engineering, who deemed the photos “denigrating to women” and a “setback” for the school. So he suspended the entire race car team from entering the lab until June, which means they won’t be able to prepare for a competition in Michigan next month. It’s a race they’ve each spent 30 to 40 hours a week getting ready for, says disappointed team leader Francis Loh, a master’s of systems design student. “We accept that there was a mistake. But we think the punishment was too harsh.” Many team members didn’t even learn of the shoot, he claims, until they were punished.
The controversy has sparked plenty of debate in the hallways of Waterloo’s engineering building and on multiple Facebook pages. Some students are questioning the fairness of Sedra’s decision, especially considering the fact that the student herself commissioned the photos. Cailin Hillier, of the Waterloo Engineering Society, considers the photographs empowering. “Women should be allowed to wear what they like,” she says.
A similar conclusion was reached by many of the students who attended a forum on sexism in engineering that took place on Waterloo’s campus the day before the punishment was handed down. A central theme was that many female engineering students feel they’re expected to dress in traditionally male garb. “We talked about how female students shouldn’t feel they won’t be taken seriously if they don’t dress like a man,” says Hiller. “But that’s what [Sedra] is reinforcing.”
Sedra says that he’s merely trying to create an environment where all students feel comfortable. “If someone comes into the lab wearing shorts—man or woman—we don’t say, ‘Why are you wearing shorts?’ ” he explains. “But a bikini in the lab? That is not appropriate in any workplace.”
Though third-year computer engineering student Bhavya Khashyap doesn’t think the punishment necessarily fits the offence, she agrees with Sedra’s assessment that labs should be navel-free zones. “That’s not my idea of empowerment,” she says.