Sexism in Engineering

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

I am not an expert on gender studies and I am not an expert on women. However, I have made some observations about men in engineering (including myself) who have done things that are clearly unacceptable. I would like to start a dialogue about what is and is not acceptable, and how we should go about discerning the two.

Firstly, let me state that not being a jerk can sometimes be very hard. Fortunately, many of the women I’ve encountered are very forgiving, probably far more forgiving than I deserve. The key is not necessarily to be perfect, but make sure we do our best to rectify our mistakes and to learn from them. The essence to learning is not making mistakes per se, but reflecting and making a genuine commitment to improve upon those mistakes.

The most important measure we can take is to create an environment where it is ok to speak up. For example, it is bad if flirting crosses the line to sexual harassment, but it is even worse if women are in a position where they feel they will be perceived as a ‘stuck-up bitch’ if they speak out.

The easier it is for women to be able to speak up and say ‘this has gone too far’ without being stigmatized, the better our flirting will be (and ultimately, the better luck we will have with the ladies-and that’s what we want, right?).

I’m now going to discuss some specific actions we can eliminate to make engineering (and the world) a better place, but the underlying theme is to ensure we have an environment where women are not afraid to tell us where the boundaries are, when we have crossed them, and how to keep ourselves out of trouble.

Sexual Harassment

As far as I can tell, there are two main types of harassment, physical and verbal.


Keep your hands to yourself. Plain and simple. If a women wants you to touch her, trust me, she will let you know.


It can sometimes be difficult to tell where to draw the line between flirting and sexual harassment, which is why it’s so important for woman to feel comfortable to tell you to stop.

1) If she tells you to stop, stop. Apologize, learn from your mistake, and make it clear it is your fault, and not hers for ‘leading you on’

2) If you think you’ve gone too far, you probably have

3) If your father told you these were the lines he used to pick up your mother, would you be proud?

Rape jokes

Rape is not, and never will be acceptable. Ever. Rape happens here on campus, and the prospect is damn frightening. Over 1/5th of women have been raped, and 91% of rape goes unreported (StatsCan), largely due to lingering negative consequences and stigmatization of reporting such incidents. Anything that normalizes rape, or even vaguely insinuates that it is anywhere near approaching acceptable or even funny needs to be crushed before it starts. Reporting and speaking out against rape needs to be normalized: joking about it must not. Think if your parents had died in a car accident, or if you had been assaulted and people started making jokes about that. Except worse. Much worse.

Jokes about hookers, dumb blondes, stereotypes (eg. driving), “that’s what she said” and the like

This is an incredibly difficult section to write. I’m not going to be the kill-joy who says these jokes are never acceptable. The above section on rape is one of the few areas I will let myself use an absolute like never. That said, be very, very careful before making jokes that create a distinction between the sexes. They need to be incredibly funny, appropriate, and as inoffensive as possible. Frankly, such jokes are usually not very funny if used more than sparingly, and will almost certainly decrease your chances of getting laid, even if used sparingly.

Phrases like ‘You’re so special to be in engineering (or math, or gaming, or whatever)’

This can be a trap. It may seem sympathetic, or even a compliment to demonstrate awareness of a disadvantage, but remember: the reason women are disadvantaged in engineering is not because of content or capability, but because of a hostile environment. So don’t ‘help’ a woman in engineering by compensating for imagined defects, but by treating her with respect and basing your actions objectively upon her individual strengths and weaknesses.

Discrimination, or the implication that a job is better suited for a man

There is a very, very short list of occupations and activities for which males are better suited than women, starting, and almost ending, with “male model”. Last time I checked, that particular occupation has very limited demand, so there should be very little cause for any insinuation or commentary about superior capabilities of men in the workforce.

Phrases like “Bitches and Hoes”

The English language can be very beautiful, with descriptive words and phrases for specific nouns such as female canines and gardening implements. It might seem funny at the time, but one generally only accomplishes the goals of looking like a fool, butchering the language, and making people uncomfortable when using such expressions.

Comments on ‘slutty’ clothes

It’s summer. It’s hot. Deal with it. Some people deal with it by wearing clothes that bare a lot of skin. Men aren’t judged on their sense of fashion or functionality of their attire, so why should women? The easiest principle to live by is to make no assumptions prematurely, and judge a women as the facts come in, which is really how engineers should be approaching any issue.

To sum up, a few simple principles can keep us out of a lot of trouble:

1) Don’t make assumptions

2) If it seems inappropriate, it probably is

3) Don’t be a jerk

I’m sure there’s more I’ve missed, so if you are a man, make sure you ask and find out. If you are a woman, don’t be afraid to speak up and help us out. And remember, it’s not about being politically correct or never making jokes, but thinking critically about the environment created by our words and actions.


  1. Am3stewa

    Great article Alex! You brought up a lot of important points. I'm particularly tired of hearing students joking about rape, or using the term for comedic/dramatic effect when describing a hard exam. Considering the horrendously low conviction rates for rapists, and a culture that supports victim-blaming and normalization of sexual assault, it's important to stick up for survivors of any gender identity.

    A better explanation as to why rape is not a joke can be found in this great Imprint article:

  2. rjardin

    Excellent article Alex! These are tough issues to discuss but necessary to ensure a positive environment for everyone.

  3. anon

    Alex might be a dick, but he should paint all males in engineering with the same brush.

  4. anon..1

    should not*

  5. .loltroll.

    “(and ultimately, the better luck we will have with the ladies-and that’s what we want, right?).”

    –alex clearly objectifies women. the above quote implies that women are objects that men are supposed to pursue. it clearly puts the male in the dominant aggressor role.

    No alex, i don't want to be “lucky” with women. I am not a loser that wishes some woman will take pity on me, and make me 'lucky” by spending her time with me.

    I don't want better “luck” with the “ladies”. If a lady wants to get to know me better, she can talk to me. I am not bending over backwards, to be “lucky”. Spare your crap for askmen.com or other stupid, low IQ male websites. Such male apologist tripe, that paints women as the superior sex and reinforces negative stereotypes should not be printed.

  6. Alex's Life Partner

    Alex, I think you are idiotic. I actually laughed out loud when I read the “slutty clothes” section of your rambling.

Leave a Reply