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Progressing Toward Gender Bias

Stephanie W. Wang

I am sure there was much talk of the progress towards equality during Women’s History Month. Despite all that “progress,” what has transpired at one of the world’s most respected institutions in the last few months?

At the 2004 Ring Premiere, a male faction cheered loudly and someone even barked “the patriarchy rules!” as the two-men seal decision was announced. Someone contended that naked women on posters actually liberate females and an organization as “reputable” as the Graduate Student Council actually put its stamp of approval on one of these posters. To top it all off, a report released by committees investigating the status of women faculty found continuing gender bias in all Institute schools.

I have never taken a women’s studies class and my indignation need not derive from feminist theory as some would be quick to suppose. Call it naÏvetÉ, but I have always believed that the desire for equality where incomprehensible, detrimental inequalities exist would be intrinsic to all humans. I do realize that the gender inequalities that exist in many parts of the world are far more harrowing and deserve far more attention than they have received. However, the same set of justifications are used all around the world, be it MIT or rural China, to perpetuate these inequities; gender bias thus should be addressed here at the Institute.

With respect to the Brass Rat, the resounding argument was one for tradition. Just as there is the naturalistic fallacy, there is also the traditionalistic fallacy: if it is tradition, it must be good. Reflect upon the numerous traditions that have been constructed and deconstructed throughout history. If traditions that were harmful were not abolished, where would we be now? Voices silenced in the “democratic” process? Rampant enslavement of people to others based on race and gender? Heck, why not keep that tradition of the absolute monarchy “chosen by a deity?” As for me and many others, if certain Chinese traditions had persisted, our feet would be bound, we would be bound to a man we had never met, and we would be having babies until a sufficient number of boys had been produced. Due to the reactionary efforts of traditionalists, these scenarios remain the realities in many parts of the world.

I am severely disappointed that factions of the MIT 2004 class have chosen the same path of regression in calling for a ring that marginalizes their fellow classmates in the name of tradition. These factions may accuse me of having unfounded concerns because it is “just a ring.” Yet didn’t they harp on the symbolic importance of the very same ring when it served their blatant chauvinistic cause cloaked in the more palatable “for the sake of tradition” argument?

If people really want the ring seal to reflect the official seal, then shouldn’t they work on changing the official seal rather than fall back to the old ways? Silly me, I thought innovative change was one of the foundations of MIT. Thankfully, I recognize the Brass Rat as simply a means for corporate profit and can choose to not purchase what was designed within the patriarchal paradigm. But how many women are suffering very real oppressions every day -- without choice -- in the name of tradition?

With respect to the supposedly harmless party posters, I have to submit that media is never innocuous and impotent. Let’s make the clear distinction that these posters are commercial print advertisements and not artistic expressions. They do not make any attempt of depicting women to show artistic appreciation for female beauty. They are selling a message and the message screams “a female’s value derives only from her physical attributes regardless of her abilities.” It is this system of valuation that continues to drive the booming sex industry all over the world. The sex industry wreaks havoc on the lives of countless women. Sexual enslavement and prostitution kill. Don’t believe these assertions? Think HIV/AIDS. Think STD. Think rape and murder. Think destitution and abuse. Think the vicious, oppressive cycle.

Of course, one might wonder what a poster at MIT has to do with one of the most extensive and deplorable markets in the world. Frankly, as much as MIT may feel like a bubble at times, it is not. In this increasingly globalized environment, media output in every corner of the world has a far greater impact than anticipated. These posters are adhering to Say’s Law, restated by Mill as “supply creates its own demand.” The posters are supplying the justification to think of women as empty vessels whose only purpose is to fulfill the desires of men, sexual and otherwise. It’s hardly convincing to say that male demand for this type of behavior won’t increase as a result. In essence, the posters at MIT are contributing to the aggregate demand in the global sex market and trades in this market often have fatal results. Thus, it’s only reasonable for members of the MIT community to express their alarm and disgust at this growing trend of degrading posters.

Is it really any surprise that gender bias still exists in the faculties of all schools in the Institute? I must admit that I have never questioned much the philosophy I was indoctrinated with: work towards gender equality by action and never by words. However, if the patriarchal system is being perpetuated with propaganda, then it is time to fight back with words as well as work. After all, I believe that every single female faculty member at MIT has fought gender bias valiantly with the quality of her work, but the system still stands. Moreover, women around the world are born into such oppressive patriarchal regimes that they may never have the opportunity to act to change their situation as is often glibly suggested. Therefore it is imperative to speak on behalf of these women because at least we can see the glass ceiling while they are mired in the dark silence.