In one tweet, Elon Musk captures the everyday sexism faced by women in STEM

He doesn’t see what’s wrong.
He doesn’t see what’s wrong.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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The world’s richest man’s poor sense of humor is exposing how much of a boys’ club tech still is.

In an Oct. 29 tweet, Musk proposed opening a school called the Texas Institute of Technology and Science. In a thread, he added, “it will have epic merch, universally admired.” When someone earnestly suggested swapping “technology” and “science” so the latter came first (on the premise that “technological breakthroughs almost always follow scientific breakthroughs”), Musk shot back, “Nope, T is def first.”

Why? Because if you swapped the letters, the acronym would no longer be TITS.

No, the Tesla and SpaceX founder wasn’t sincerely talking about setting up a university (despite what entrepreneurs, political scientists, US senators and politicians, and professional athletes thought). Yes, he was making a boob joke.

“I heard sexualizing women is a top-down, systemic issue in tech. Might be wrong though idk,” Cher Scarlett, one of the leaders of the AppleToo anti-harassment group at Apple, tweeted sarcastically in response. 

What Musk’s “joke” suggests about company culture at Tesla and SpaceX

Coming from anybody, this sort of a distasteful joke makes for an eye-roll moment. It’s childish and immature. But coming from Musk, who has almost 62 million followers on Twitter and is the face of two important tech companies, it is potentially damaging to the entire sector.

“Honestly. As a shareholder and customer, this is really a puzzling and disappointing attempt at humor,” Eric Wenger, senior director for technology policy and government affairs at Cisco, tweeted in response. “We are trying to encourage more women to pursue technology degrees and careers. I cannot see how this helps that effort in any way.”

Tesla, where just one in five of the 70,000-plus employees are women, has been criticized for being a hostile workplace in the past. Women there are subject to “inappropriate language, whistling, and catcalls,” a 2017 lawsuit by engineer AJ Vandermeyden alleged, and other female employees concurred.

At SpaceX—where the representation of women is even slimmer than it is at Tesla—the president and chief operating officer is a woman, Gwynne Shotwell, who in the past has called Musk “a great boss” who is “funny” and  “incredibly fair, almost to a fault.”

Musk’s latest messaging might not change that, but it arguably makes the characterization harder to believe.

Coming to grips with tech’s sexism problem

Despite studies showing women are good for business—diversity generates higher revenues, varied ideas, and more effective teams—tech leaders haven’t done enough to foster safe working environments for them. A survey by Accenture and Girls Who Code found that half of the women in tech roles leave their jobs by the time they’re 35, with 37%—the largest percentage—citing “noninclusive company culture” as their main reason for quitting.

What possibly could be causing their sensitivity? Well, there are structural issues like tech’s well-documented gender pay gap. But there also are run-ins with things like Musk’s boob joke, or that time in 2017 when an Uber board member interrupted a presentation about sexism to make a sexist joke. Unlike Musk’s tweets, however, these unanticipated (and yet somehow not fully unexpected) interactions usually occur behind closed doors.

In the case of Uber, the board member in question resigned within 12 hours—and then-CEO Travis Kalanick eventually stepped down over allegations of rampant sexism at the firm. At Pinterest, where former chief operating officer Françoise Brougher sued for gender discrimination, the company paid $22.5 million to settle her claims, and donated to charities that support women and underrepresented women in tech.

In most cases, if a boss had made a joke like Musk’s in an office, it would be grounds for an investigation at least, if not an outright firing.

But Musk’s crude outburst has played out for the world to see on Twitter—and he’s been pretty blasé about it. It’s been three days since his tweet, and neither he nor his companies have addressed the impropriety of it. Luckily, other people have.