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.”


Dear Elon: you missed a few Waterloo women

  1. Queen’s University is where Elon met his first wife and the mother to his children… so it turns out he was actually right to choose Queen’s based on the girl that were there. :)

    • They’re divorced. Same with his second wife. He has 5 kids.

      Engineering and math are not welcoming to women….they are the last ‘male bastion’ holdouts.

      • How about nursing to men?

        I think there are some fields of endeavour that have unequal appeal to each sex. I don’t think women are any worse at math, or engineering, but they seem to be less often interested in these subjects. This doesn’t seem to be the case for other sciences, where the ratio of women in higher.

        Where is all the angst about sexism in female dominated disciplines. Women now represent a majority of students enrolled in medicine, accounting, and law programs (at least at some schools). These are high status professions too.

        • You’ll have to ask HI about that to be sure, but I have no doubt men are often discouraged from entering nursing just as women are discouraged from entering engineering. It’s a cultural thing.

          When I was a kid I was told the only two professions women could be in were nursing and teaching. Which was okay because girls couldn’t do math anyway!

          Plus you were only going to work ‘until’ at best. ‘Until’ you either got married or later…. pregnant.

          I had hoped we were past that nonsense, but apparently not.

          There is lots of angst about women now dominating some fields….Macleans alone has done quite a few reports on it.

      • Yeah, he got divorced, so the kids are of no consequence, eh, Emily?

        • Where did it say that?

  2. What I don’t get is– and I went to Waterloo, for History not Engineering– outside Engineering and Math/Comp Sci programmes there are tonnes of women at Waterloo! The Arts Faculty (while outnumberd by Eng & Math/Comp combined) is the largest faculty there. Also with Laurier U down the street it seemed male students at UW had no problem finding female dates in the W part of K-W, so Musk was wrong in his perceptions.