Changing the images around us

June 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Man posterWoman poster

Recently, for the first time, I had lunch in the main campus food court of one of the institutions where I work. These two posterboards were prominently positioned by the entrance/exit. Obviously and intentionally, the boards encouraged folks to think and act in an environmentally conscious manner. However, only slightly less obviously (and one hopes less intentionally) they also telegraphed a rather unsubtle message about gender.

Here are a few relevant features of the two boards:

Near the man’s head is a thought bubble (he immediately looks like a thinker), with nearby encouragement to “Think smart! Think efficient!”
Near the woman’s head is an arrow pointing to her face, with advice on what make-up she should wear.

The man is carrying a newspaper (he looks informed) and a football (he looks active).
The woman is carrying a shopping bag and a coffee mug.

The woman is posed and dressed in a much more obviously sexualized way.

With one exception, every piece of advice surrounding the female figure is about clothing, make-up, shopping, or beverage consumption. (The exception is right at the bottom of the image, almost hidden behind another board, and is about walking wherever possible.) The same is not true of the advice surrounding the male figure.

With lots of help and encouragement from friends and colleagues, I composed and sent an email to the Principal and VC of the university explaining that these boards were sending a damaging message, and that we were doing everyone a disservice by reinforcing stereotypes about gender which are detrimental to (among other things) the academic success of women. I invited the VC, and those involved in the design of these posterboards, to an upcoming public event on implicit bias against women hosted by the research institute where I work.

I received a reply from the VC the next day, saying that although he may not be able to attend the event, he had forwarded my message to one of the Vice Principals who has responsibility for a team looking at gender policy and awareness in the university. I followed up with the Vice Principal in question, who wrote back to me explaining that the posterboards were five years old and she hadn’t seen them before, but that after reading my email she had canvassed opinions and got the posters removed. In fact, they were taken down the day after I sent my original message.

While it’s sad that these boards were around for five years before anything happened, I am heartened by the university’s prompt and positive response to my concerns, and especially by all the goodwill and support that made it so much easier to raise them than it might otherwise have been.

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