When did UWaterloo dean become moral police? - Macleans.ca

When did UWaterloo dean become moral police?

Engineering dean didn’t need to weigh in on ‘denigrating’ photo


University of Waterloo dean of engineering Adel Sedra was on course at first. When a racy photo of a bikini-clad woman standing next to a student-built race car emerged during preparation for a contest, the team responsible was immediately disqualified, and Sedra offered a valid, incontestable reason. “The suspension results from misuse of the Student Design Centre space for an unauthorized photo shoot involving the Formula SAE vehicle,” he wrote in a memo to engineering students. No sweat, right? No gender politics, no debate. Just, ‘You broke the rules, kiddos, so you’re out.’ If only he had stopped there. Unfortunately for admin, however, no one was there to kick Sedra under the table when he kept on talking.

In a subsequent interview with The Record, Sedra commented on the bikini pose, calling it a “setback” to efforts to improve gender relations in the engineering faculty at Waterloo. “I believe the incident that took place can be thought of as denigrating to women,” he said.

No, Sedra! No, stick with your old story and run!

Ah, it’s too late. With those few words, Sedra has ushered in an unnecessary moral judgment and thus undermined the conviction of his first explanation for punishment. Were the students really disqualified because they held an unauthorized photo shoot? Or because the faculty doesn’t approve of the “denigrating” photo?

The elephant in the room is the disproportionate male presence in the program (only about 17 per cent of engineering students at Waterloo are women), and the university’s efforts to balance the scales. And while it seems Sedra aimed his comment to say, “Hey, ladies, I’m on your side,” it has only served to stir the pot.

In fact, many women on one end of the feminist spectrum would argue that a photo that embraces female sexuality is anything but demeaning. Take the recent “Slut Walk” event that occurred in Toronto in response to a police officer’s suggestion that women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like “sluts.” Women paraded around downtown Toronto wearing various amounts of clothing, rejecting the tendency for women to be “judged by [their] sexuality.” Wear what you want, was the message, and don’t let anyone judge you. I would assume some of those marching women would have a problem with Sedra asserting that a photo of a woman in a bikini, especially one taken with consent, is something worthy of censure.

The other obvious problem with Sedra’s comment is that it is made as moral judgment from a position of authority. Granted, the photo  (which can be seen on The Record’s website) is sultry and suggestive, but neither descriptor necessitates commentary from the faculty dean. Such a statement conveys more than just Sedra’s personal attitude, and could easily be inflated to reflect faculty opinion as a whole.

Mainstream conceptions of acceptable female representation are so fluid and complex anyway that Sedra’s one-off comment inevitably comes off as beyond the call of duty. Should this ever occur again, he should just get them on misuse of student space and make beeline for the exit.

Photo: By Like the Grand Canyon


When did UWaterloo dean become moral police?

  1. The dean carefully says the picture can be thought of as denigrating, meaning that the (superficial) image from the pictures have the possibility of reducing the value of women subliminally. He didn’t say these pictures are offensive, but rather, they have potential to do harm. At Waterloo, we have a dedicated faculty and student committee for Women in Engineering. This is definitely not what they are going for!

    Especially due to recent incidents – anti-female attack posters, fake emails purporting to be from the Dean, this incident was very poorly timed.

    Besides, it is obvious that the unauthorization and misuse is due to the objectified woman in the photo (otherwise there would be no problem taking photos of a car…)

    • What photos out there in world are not are “potentially” offensive to “someone”? Whether or not something is considered offensive is for the individual to decide, not a committee. In fact, I would find it “potentially” offensive and dangerous to relegate moral definition and student goals to a single school faculty or student committee. In Canada, citizens have the right to be free to express themselves as they see fit and define their goals individually provided they are not harmful to others. However in this context, the majority have not found the photos to be harmful and in this case, it was simply a modelling shot for a charitable cause. Women are free to choose to how they want to be portrayed and even “objectified” if they so wish; to be prevented otherwise is outright censorship of personal freedoms.

      • Also to quote you George:

        “Besides, it is obvious that the unauthorization and misuse is due to the objectified woman in the photo (otherwise there would be no problem taking photos of a car…)”

        An unauthorized photo of a car without a woman, would still remain an unauthorized photo of property. So, why would it not be problematic to have an “obviously” objectified shot of a car that can also be misused?

  2. And they wonder why fewer women are doing into engineering!!! Women can be smart AND sexy, and this photo shows that. Plenty of female engineers have beauty and brains, and this photo helps to show that women who are engineers cane be feminine and sexy.

    Sadly, the Dean doesn’t see it that way.

    It makes me glad I studied engineering at a school that is much more accepting to women being women, while still being engineers. At Guelph the ratio of men to women in engineering is almost 50:50. I felt supported as a woman and as an engineer. Waterloo needs to realize that women who are engineers can still be feminine. You don’t have to give up your femininity to study engineering, and sadly Waterloo doesn’t seem to realize that.

  3. CatRunner “feminine” != nearly naked.
    “You don’t have to give up your femininity to study engineering”

    You don’t have to take your clothes off to be feminine.

    • Of course not, but this engineering student chose to display her femininity in that way. What’s wrong with that?

      The sooner people realize that women can be engineers and STILL be sexy, the better it will be for women in engineering. We female engineers aren’t all “butch” types who want to wear men’s clothes and keep our hair cut super-short. Some of us are very feminine and enjoy showing that yes, in fact, we ARE women.

      Why is it okay for male engineering students to be photographed topless, but it’s not okay for a female engineering student to be photographed wearing a bikini (NOT topless)? That’s a double standard. We women in engineering want to be treated as EQUALS, not as inferiors who need to be protected by men in authority positions like the Waterloo Dean.

      • I agree 100% with you CatRunner. Just read a very powerful post written by a woman architect in New York here, which also quoted what other established women engineers think of this:


        I quote from that post, because I couldn’t have said it better. It covered that particular double standards that the women in engineering face, something never spoken of by the mainstream media:
        “While our society seems to treat the ‘sexiness’ of male architects with giggly humour, if a woman architect or engineer confidently displays her intelligence, talent AND feminine sexuality with dignity and humour – she faces intense opposition of jealousy-disguised-as-righteousness from other women and is often not taken seriously by male architects and engineers for shedding the ‘asexual/tomboy’ persona required for women to succeed in this field.”

        “We wonder why whipper-smart, kind AND gorgeous ladies like this woman engineer are not seen more in the media, but only idiotic vulgar ones or smart but angry, masculinized ones are omnipresent? Here’s why. Here’s exactly why. Because the ones who can combine the whole package and are rational and kind to boot, are forced to become invisible and their voices silenced if ever they dare to come forward.

        So I want to say to her: You go, girl! Don’t let the peanut gallery of the press, comments or the self-righteous morality-brigade silence you or those like you within your team and department. If I had a daughter, I’d rather she’d see you and the other girls on that team standing confidently in front of that car you helped build than let her look at those idiotic supermarket tabloids with reality stars or read the rants of some ideological activist. Because all I see in that picture is a smart, self-assured woman taking some pride in an invention made by a team of intelligent men and women who she is also a part of and taking pride in her healthy curves.”

  4. Yeah he did. Look at the workplace. When top manage turns a blind eye to environments such as this, yhey are open to liability. They have and will be sued.

    To all the child geeks at Waterloo, I strongly encourage you to do this kind of nonsense at your next coop placement. Good luck with it. Time to pretend you have some basic adult commonsense.

    • A work term is a lot different from a school term. A students drops 5k a semester for an education and an experience. The university needs to honour their end of the deal. Free speech, free expression isn’t that what campus life is all about. Sponsors of the FSAE vehicle cant be too concerned with their names getting out there. The sponsors logos on the car pretty much speak for them selves “hey we helped build this car”.

      Unauthorized use of the facilities? Its a supposed to be an university not a jail. Its called the student design center. Apparently everyone was a student so that cant be it either. I have to agree with Robyn, what she is wearing is none of his business, unless UW has a code of ethics of how women should act.

      • A student drops about 5K a semester?
        Big deal. The taxpayer is dropping a lot more than that on your education, and as a taxpayer I can say full stop that I do not pay that so you can prance around in bikinis. Grow the hell up.

    • How kind of you to grace us with your wisdom. My geeky yet clearly inferior child mind has been opened… ok lets cut the crap.

      Maybe I’ll take your advice and show up to work in a speedo. Are you willing to bet that everyone in the department will be fired as a result?

      The team was not involved. It was a single student who happened to be a member using it to her advantage. Letting an entire year’s worth of hard work go to waste so that they can stay on their moral high-horse is absurd, bordering on tyrannical.

      With that said, this whole ‘denigrating to women’ hoopla is utter nonsense. Apparently there is only room for one type of female in the engineering profession. This student comes along and smashes the stereotype and the administration is upset because it contradicts their vision of what a female engineer should be; a vision that has thus far failed conclusively in attracting more female engineering students.

      My basic adult commonsense tells me that the university simply wants to ‘make an example’ of the team by imposing this ridiculous punishment for the express purpose of consolidating their authority, which quite frankly I find to be pathetic.

  5. Sedra is from Egypt. Perhaps he’s uncomfortable with women who aren’t submissively clad in burqa’s?

    • Is it surprising to see a racist comment like this in an article on sexism? No, such views are highly correlated.

  6. The problem here is that very few of you seem to really understand what a context is. Engineering is dealing with a serious women shortage mostly due to a very male centric atmosphere. Many engineers (women and men) leave their position due to overly masculine and hostile office environments.

    Many females engineers polled in studies have said that poisonous overly masculine office environments no only restrict their ability to move in organizations, it increases their stress and is a contributing factor to leaving.

    So is the engineering dean justified? Yes, he’s trying to protect what female engineering population he has and ensure there will be more in the future.

    • Working in hostile environments is not for everyone. What is the relation to the pictures and the comments made by the dean?

      Seems the only message he is sending is that women should conform to some image. He is basically saying if as a female I am going to work/study in engineering I should dress/act a certain way based on some standard in these guy’s head.

    • Plain and simple, the dean is trying (and failing) to protect his image and his faculty/university’s image from bad publicity and politics. It’s just a fear from possible bad media…which in this case his plan backfired on him by giving him exactly that. It has nothing to do with him trying to protect female engineers -besides, how in world is he protecting them by suspending students and calling them denigrating? Sure, ok so they didn’t ask for permission, but that’s as far as it should have gone. It isn’t a dean’s job to impose his or her personal moral beliefs upon their students.

  7. How can it possibly matter what she chose to wear while posing next to the race car that she helped to build?

    No one seems to have made any fuss at all over photos of scantily clad male engineers posing next to cars that they built. There are at least two such photos hanging in the University of Saskatchewan engineering building.

    • It doesn’t matter what she chose to wear except that – who the heck gives a crap about the car when a nearly naked chick is in the photo? Who even notices there’s a car in the photo except as a prop for the girl? That’s the issue, I think; the bikini-girl image detracts from the project. Very few people looking at the photo are going to say, “Wow, it’s so cool that this engineer took part in the creation of that groovy car; I’d like to learn more about the UW Engineering program!” Seriously.

      • Jealous, much? Not surprised….

        I’ve often noticed that if tech-brained women show their whipper-smart brains AND femininity, the liberal arts girls instead of defending them, get into some self-righteous ignoring. I quote from a great post I read, which finally speaks the truth for what it is:

        “In the double standards of sex in our society, the women who lose out are usually the smart, individualistic, beautiful ones who by entering fields of work largely dominated by men, face both sexism from the men AND sexual politics from other women. While women engineers and architects are the ones who perhaps do the most for female equality by entering hitherto-male-dominated technical professions without beating a drum about it, they get largely overlooked by the mainstream media and pushed down by their own male colleagues and female academicians. While the media either promotes the usual clichés of giggly materialistic pampered cosmo girls or alternately ‘male-bashing women’s-lib-yelling-lawyers’ or at most, the smart-caring female-doctor, the 10 – 15% women in technical fields largely remain unknown.”

        “So Woe betide (to use medieval terms) should a woman be whipper-smart with the brains to design a race car AND look gorgeous AND pose for a good cause for other women! “Burn the witch!” “How dare she use sex appeal?” “Oh dear, the children!!!” “She has shamed our institution!” “The entire team should be suspended as a lesson!”

        and for the types of you Ophelia here’s exactly what you and other women need to hear:
        ““…I realize it’s terribly un-PC, but one issue that isn’t spoken of enough in regards to gender stereotyping, is that specific flavour of bias faced by intelligent and talented women who are beautiful and sexy, but not slutty, and who don’t downplay their feminine sides. To be able to hold on to this brand of feminine identity AND be successful in a male dominated field takes an immense amount of strength. And I, for one, think this should be rewarded, especially by other women, because if there is any hope of us breaking free of these deeply embedded gender myths it will only be through the example of women who are willing to stand alone.”

        I am a woman engineer, proud of my femininity, proud of my curves AND proud of my brains. maybe it’s time the women in those humanities field acknowledge that the world couldn’t survive without the infrastructure and inventions of engineers – including the internet and computer. Get some tech-smarts FIRST Ophelia and then spew your insecurities against the woman.

    • No one makes a fuss about males because males are not oppressed, dork.

  8. The group of students getting suspended for posing with their Team car? Let me get this straight. If it was a summer day outside on the lawn outside POETS engineering bar, this would be honky dory?

    When someone changed the windows to read ‘FUCK’ in the library, no one got suspended
    Or all those students caught in a compromising position in classrooms
    Or the students who were caught drinking and playing poker with cash in DC 1301
    Or when we call DC and MC downtown and mainland china
    The kids texting each other in a math building classroom during a FINAL didn’t get a suspension

    Stupid decision? maybe… Serious over-reaction by the dean? Yes.

  9. This article just about nailed it. I’m a woman engineer in NYC and this story touched a lot of us very deeply. I can write my own viewpoints on this, but this said it so much better, that the TRUTH really hurts:


    I think it is time people looked into the truth and stopped punishing the girls in engineering. As the link above so rightly says, even after all these years women engineers in the west still have to wear the western version of the burkha – i.e. the shapeless black turtle neck and pants to be taken seriously. Or are expected to look like “jerry-lewis-in-a-wig.” But if we show any trace of femininity or attractiveness, we get stereotyped, even though we are a far cry from the cliched idiotic bimbos but are instead introverted rational women. I think this controversy truly nails that fact.

  10. I am a female professor in the Faculty Engineering at the University of Waterloo. No administrator in the 50+ year history of the Faculty has done more to promote women in engineering and defend the interests of women faculty and students than Dean Adel Sedra. He created the Associate Dean for Outreach position to encourage women to consider engineering as a profession and supported countless initiatives to ensure the success of female students. Every female professor I know respect and value all he has done for women in engineering. Male professors are puzzled as to how the media has managed to completely twist the story out of context. The quest for a sensational story is indeed troubling for fair-minded people. The issue is not about women but the truth would simply be too dull. Visit Waterloo Engineering and see for yourself. It offers an open and professional environment – qualities that has made it a first rate engineering school – much thanks to the Dean’s leadership.

    • “… is indeed troubling for fair-minded people.” Exactly, LS. That is the point : It IS troubling to all of us. Because:
      I don’t know in which universe it is ‘fair’ to make a mountain out of a molehill as your beloved Dean did and ban an entire team of 30 young hopeful engineers from entering a great contest, and ban them for 2 months over a swimsuit. Last time I heard, only the mullahs in London had a similar problem over a British muslim girl entering the Ms. Universe contest. And when did Waterloo engineering become London’s conservative mullahs?

      I know for a fact, like many other students on campus, that far greater and ACTUAL acts of vandalism, and breaking of rules goes on there. This was not even a crime, far from it. Everyone’s been doing photography on that campus for years, and no probs. The excuse is so lame – MacLean’s Ms. Urback was right to write this article. If the pic had been of a group of girls in hoodies or men in swim trunks, I’m sure that would have faced no problems.

      It is not the media – I think for once the media HAS been objective. It is the weird overreaction of the dean’s office itself that sensationalized something so innocent into some witch-hunt and group punishment. Perhaps you and the faculty should get some objectivity instead of being unable to see the picture from outside the frame. What you guys are doing is called psychological projection. Blame everyone outside – the students, the media – but not look into your own insecurities.

      Fine, whatever he did, his harsh decision certainly overturned it. Ridiculously harsh, as ANY truly fair-minded person would see. Banning 30 people over a swimsuit?! The only lesson it taught was that you will be judged by what you wear, not by a year’s worth of hard work or your brains. And “Women, submit! To the already existing biases about you in engineering. And even if you are women,look and dress like a man or else, be barred!”

      Maybe the women in the dept. including the women profs too should take some pride on their OWN as women with brains, instead of doing the usual kiss-up-to-the-dean flattering or waiting for his divine patronizing and outreach.