The Women Empowered in STEM Student Interest Group at NYU Abu Dhabi recently launched a campaign promoting an event addressing unconscious gender bias in STEM. Highly controversial posters started cropping up in elevators around campus, bearing phrases such as, “Girls, you won’t understand the example in this lecture, it’s about video games,” “There aren’t many women invited to speak, that’s why they chose you,” and “I was told women are better at biology than physics ... That’s why I changed majors.”
The posters sparked an uproar around campus and have brought to light serious discussions about the differing approaches to feminism and lingering elements of sexism at NYUAD.
Much of the initial anger was quickly diffused as people discovered that the posters were intended to campaign for a weSTEM event on campus. Posters appeared in three segments over the course of a week, leaving their purpose unclear for several days. weSTEM’s campaign is not problematic because it hurt people’s feelings, but because its method for raising awareness is counterproductive. I, too, want the world to achieve gender equality, but these posters were not the way to do it.
The most significant issue with this campaign was the inflammatory method of grabbing people’s attention to raise awareness for gender discrimination in the STEM departments at NYUAD. Inserting negative rhetoric into the environment is never productive. In issues of gender discrimination, language is one of the biggest proponents of bias. Even when discrimination is lessened on an institutional level, university and workplace environment language continue to work against achieving equality.
Statements like the ones displayed on weSTEM’s posters are examples of the type of rhetoric that foster a sexist community. Phrases insinuating that women are not interested in video games do not qualify as acts of discrimination, but they certainly do reinforce the outdated gendered stereotypes that initially created the notion that women are naturally less inclined towards the natural sciences than men. Moreover, the use of real world cases of sexism within the university as a cheap marketing ploy to cultivate interest in a SIG event is demeaning. The content of the conversation should motivate students to attend a SIG event, not the grandiosity of its advertising scheme. Unconscious gender bias is a serious contemporary issue and the importance of the actual conversation has been overshadowed by the controversial posters.
There are far more positive methods of raising awareness surrounding gender biases. For example, one outraged student has taken it upon herself to tape empowering quotations by powerful women over weSTEM’s posters. One of the secondary posters displays a quotation by former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I firmly believe that empowering rhetoric is the best way to shift unconscious bias. We live in a moment where few people consciously cling to sexist ideas about women in education, and fighting against the unconscious bias is our next task. It is hypocritical to fight against unconscious bias by littering campus with sexist quotes that community members read multiple times every day.
The positive posters introduced a productive voice into the conversation and fostered an environment where people can more openly discuss gender issues without being offended. The divisiveness that has been caused by the posters has sparked more disagreement and insult than productive conversation. When an issue is as sensitive and polarizing as gender discrimination in STEM, grabbing attention with triggering statements only adds fuel to the fire. When people are offended, they react instead of engaging with the issues. It is a shame, because the topic of weSTEM’s event is important, but I fear too many people have been put off by the advertising. Alternately, it might be argued that the explosion of conversation around the posters is exactly what weSTEM wanted; the campaign certainly has sparked discussion and interest. However, not all conversation is productive conversation. In order to address claims about unconscious bias in STEM, participants need to be willing to engage, not react. The posters have elicited hot-headed reactions and that has done a disservice to people actually trying to bring about productive conversations about addressing gender bias.
A series of comments on one of NYUAD’s Facebook pages show that male and female students feel weSTEM has alienated them from the conversation all together. Shocking reactions to the posters include a number of students who have added to the debate by calling out those people concerned with the offensive posters for being “overly sensitive” or part of a generation that is known for always having their feelings hurt. Inciting this type of reaction is exactly the reason why the poster campaign was a bad idea. The conversation shifted away from unconscious bias, the real issue at hand, and turned to a conversation about the excessive sensitivity of millenials. The types of phrases displayed on the posters are representative of a backwards system in which gender equality has yet to be achieved.
Regardless of whether we are men or women, or in STEM or not, we should be standing up to professors and peers who make statements like the ones written on the posters. We attend an institution that does an exceptional job of creating equal opportunities for its students and faculty. If someone is making statements based on outdated gender stereotypes, then it is our job, male or female, to politely speak up in the moment. We are at a point in history and a place in the world where opportunities are increasingly equal, and the next step is reshaping people’s vocabulary to exclude sexist statements like the ones that are boldly displayed on posters all around campus.
Maya Morsli is Opinion Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.