Illustration by Mateo Juvera Molina

Response to weSTEM Poster Controversy

We need to shed light on the problem of unconscious bias by explicitly putting it out there, by sharing narratives with the world.

Since the beginning of last semester, weSTEM has established a team that aims to tackle unconscious bias against women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. What differentiates this project in weSTEM, in comparison to other projects the SIG runs is the fact that it aims to engage a wider audience in a conversation. Some might attend a panel about the gender gap, while others might prefer to attend unconscious bias training. That does not, however, ensure that the whole community is engaged in the conversation. weSTEM thus resorted to a more passive way of including everyone: putting up posters. Even though not everyone would actively respond to the posters’ content, we thought, they would at least become aware that this bias exists and would hopefully be prompted to think twice before making a statement with sexist undertones in the future.
This brings us to our next point. These posters condense a conversation — a complex thought process — into two or three sentences. In other words, when one boils down unconscious bias to its essence, it sounds sexist and demeaning, but in reality, a lot of this rhetoric is muffled by other statements that sugarcoat the bias. While one may argue that this is misrepresenting reality, we argue that by highlighting the underlying sexism in many decisions and conversations we deem to be normal or perhaps slightly uncomfortable, we render the unconscious bias conscious, which is the first step towards taking action against it. In her article, Morsli states that “[our] method for raising awareness is counterproductive”, due to the fact that it’s “inserting negative rhetoric into the environment.” However, what we aimed to do was not to insert, but simply highlight already existent rhetoric, as the first step toward fixing a problem is being aware that it exists.
As Morsli points out, “Unconscious gender bias is a serious contemporary issue and the importance of the actual conversation has been overshadowed by the controversial posters.”
In other words, the negative response generated by these posters ended up generating questions about whether the posters should’ve been up in the first place, whether they’re sexist or not, rather than about the actual issue itself. While this may be true, it is difficult to start a conversation when people are not aware of the gravity and prevalence of the issue in the first place. Our posters were meant to be the spark that ignited this discussion.
However, some people did not seem to understand the underlying message of the posters. They judged them superficially, labeling them as sexist. Indeed, the quotes on the posters are sexist. In fact, that is the point: to criticise and satirize the sexist statements people at NYU Abu Dhabi frequently make. However, this in no way means that the posters themselves are sexist, nor that they are propagating sexist values. As previously stated, our intent was for the posters to raise awareness. Calling the posters sexist would be equivalent to for example, saying that posters showing a car crash caused by someone driving under the influence of alcohol would promote drunk driving.
The fact that the posters were judged in this way only shows that they should’ve been put up; the community knows that gender bias exists, but does not realize it as it occurs. We need to acknowledge that the posters display examples of unconscious bias, as opposed to simply sexism, which it is necessary to acknowledge and be aware of in order to adopt “more positive methods of raising awareness” or a more “empowering rhetoric,” as Morsli claims we should do.
The prevalence of ignorance toward unconscious bias is indeed a painful reality that we wish we could get rid of as easily as ripping a poster off a wall or covering it with a motivational quote. Of course, people are aware that bias and sexism exists. However, they do not know how close to home it is. To put it simply, any sane person in the 21st century would agree that women and men should be seen as equals, but it is not the case in practice: there still are people who have hesitations about women's’ abilities, whether they are aware of it or not. And this is the problem we are addressing. As Morsli points out, “We live in a moment where few people consciously cling to sexist ideas about women in education,” which is true. The keyword is consciously. Again and again, what we are talking about isn’t direct insults and negative rhetoric, it is more nuanced and disguised than that. As a result, we need to shed light on the problem by explicitly putting it out there, by sharing narratives with the world.
Finally, we’d like to point out that the posters were not an advertising stunt as Morsli says; rather, they were hung up simply for awareness. We held a conversation on unconscious bias — on Tuesday March 6 in the Living Room — in response to the community’s frustration. We want to channel that anger into actionable change rather than futile online rants.
Tom Abi Samra is a contributing writer and Paula Dozsa is a satire columnist. Email them at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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