Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why I Support the Dean

If you've been stuck at a computer the past week as I have, then you may have read a story about an engineering student team at the University of Waterloo being suspended from competition over a member's bikini picture. It was in the local paper, Jalopnik, and even made FOX news.  Most of the responses have been in support of the student and against the Dean's suspension decision, with levels of indignation ranging from begrudging acceptance to downright outrage. You can read one such response here. But I'm writing this post to present the other side of the argument and explain why I support the Dean in his decision. Every argument has two sides and I hope that, even if you disagree,you can understand the other perspective.


Firstly, I want to clear up a misconception about the supposed charity she was supporting. I was able to find out for which organization the bikini pictures were from a friend who knows the girl and chatted with her about the photo shoot. The pictures were for Unigirl Canada, a for-profit organization that takes photos of college and university girls to sell calendars with only 10% of the profits going to charity. From the organization's website, their self-stated goal is to "provide Canadian students with a sense of real-life beauty and offer young women across the country the necessary exposure to help them make it in the rough and tumble world of modeling." The charity portion, while admirable, is only marginally part of the organization's aims. At best, Unigirl Canada is an organization supporting the modeling careers of women with a portion of profits going to charity and at worst it is a business profiting from the bodies of young women (the girls don't get paid) that hides under the guise of charity. This is why I think writing "she took the pictures for charity" is highly misleading. This wasn't Red Cross; these were personal reasons for the photo shoot.

Secondly, I want to draw the distinction between the Dean's stated reason for suspending the team (misuse of the Student Design Centre (SDC) for an unauthorized photoshoot) and the likely underlying reason (he was stated as saying the incident was "denigrating to women" and described the bikini pose as a "setback" to the work the university has done to promote an open and welcoming environment for men and women).

Addressing the former, arguments against the Dean have focused on the fact that other groups (e.g. the photography club) have taken photos around campus without asking permission and therefore this photo shoot should have been allowed. I don't think this is very persuasive, given that the photos were for a for-profit competition (i.e. not for personal use only) and contained the Waterloo logo (on the car); these aspects distinguish the shoot from others. Ultimately, use of the SDC is a privilege granted by the university, not a right, and UW has the right to revoke the privilege for what it thinks is abuse.

Furthermore, to argue that no sponsors have publicly rallied against the photos is to be presumptuous that no sponsors had a problem with it. If I were a sponsor, why would I risk backlash by announcing it in public? It would be much easier to privately e-mail the Dean or to just withdraw my funding later. In the end, it comes down to professionalism. If the shoot were done in front of a co-op employer's logo for similar purposes without prior authorization, then the discipline would have been the same.

Next, I'd like to tackle the issues regarding the Dean's statements that the images were "denigrating to women". The responses to this statement can be categorized into two groups, depending on whether you thought the images were offensive or not (I think they were). Obviously if you thought the images were offensive then you feel the photo shoot was wrong, but I'm going to argue why, even if you don't think the images were offensive, the Dean's decision was the right one.

Before that, however, I want to briefly explain why I feel the images are offensive to women. I anticipate backlash for this because I am not a female engineer, but I'm merely expressing my opinion and speculating where I think the Dean is coming from. As both a brother, boyfriend and roommate to female engineers, I have seen how hard it is to maintain femininity in the profession. And I have definitely seen it from the other side, too; I've seen how male engineers can belittle a female engineer's accomplishments for the way she looks or criticize a female engineer for not dressing a certain way. I believe these attitudes stem from a fundamental lack of respect for women in engineering and that this lack of respect is reinforced by the objectification of women. When women are promoted as objects, it reinforces the notion that her worth is measured by her body instead of other aspects of who she is. As a result I feel that it is sad that this smart, talented girl felt it necessary to express her femininity in a way that reinforces this disrespect for women.

Whether you agree with the previous paragraph or not (and it's valid not to), I still think the Dean was right in implementing disciplinary action against the photo shoot. The faculty advisor to the team put it best when he wrote, "they failed to fully appreciate the ease with which these photos could be taken out of context". This lies at crux of the Dean's decision. I wish we lived in a time where a woman could be free to express her femininity without criticism, but unfortunately the reality is that we're not there yet. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lewd comments made from anonymity on the news articles. The first one I read was along the lines of, "Which of the guys on the team must she have slept with to be on it?" which is not only disgusting but typifies the environment we still live in. If you must express your feminism by posing in a bikini next to a car for your own personal reasons, at least don't draw in the university and the sponsors into your decision.

Finally, the harshest criticism of the Dean has been his response to suspend the entire team rather than just the members involved. This I acknowledge is debatable and I support less than his reasoning for the discipline. That said, it once again speaks to the professionalism that UW is trying to maintain. There are very few workplaces I can think of where you could set up a photo shoot of a girl in a bikini posing with the company's and partners' names without even asking for permission. It was definitely a momentary lapse in judgment, but arguing that "it was for a good cause" (it wasn't) or "that it wasn't a big deal" (I believe it was) doesn't mean that there shouldn't be repercussions. Given the stakes (the university's reputation) and the flimsiness of the defense, I'm not surprised the Dean threw the book at the team. He probably wanted to make it harsh enough that no one would think about doing something similar again; he e-mailed the entire faculty with the news, after all.

In conclusion, I just wanted to present the reasons why I support the Dean in his disciplinary decision. Given the backlash against the Dean and his actions, I felt at least someone should be arguing the other side. To me, this incident is a case where a student used university space for personal reasons without authorization and in a way that could be misconstrued and hurt the school's reputation; for this, she and everyone around her were made an example of to prevent further incidents.

**Edit**

In email response I got from the Dean, he had this response to add about the punishment being dealt to the whole team:
"On the last point of why punish the entire team , you got part of the reason. The other aspect relates to the concept of the teams as self governing units. The Faculty deals with them as teams and not as collection of individuals. The space in the SDC was allocated to the team and when the space was misused , the team's access to the space was withdrawn for a couple of months."

14 comments:

  1. Can be summed up: this is not what "Women in Engineering" had in mind - if it were explicit that she was part of the team, then the event could likely have passed as a team promotions event... but the "could be taken out of context" part is definitely the issue.

    ...though the punishment for the entire team to miss the annual competition was unfortunate

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  2. I completely agree with all your points. The girl should have just asked for permission to begin with, and all of this could have been avoided. It is unfortunate that the team will not have the opportunity to compete this year, but ultimately, the Dean make the correct decision.

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  3. A brilliant defense. Well reasoned and articulate. It's nice to see that there are other people in the world who actually try to take everything into consideration rather than just reacting emotionally.

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  4. I'm impressed with your articulate and, as previously stated by an earlier post, well reasoned defense. You've changed my mind.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. I hope you'll consider posting it on Maclean's oncampus website in response to a bloggers attack on the dean. You might enlighten even more people.

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  5. You have some great points and I also agree with how you perceive this in the context of gender issues. I really dislike how people use information out of context when they make a defense for poorly thought out actions.

    "She took the pictures for charity" (and to pursue a modeling career).

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  6. While I disagree with you, I have to say this was one of the most well-written articles I've read in a long time, and I very much appreciate your ability to present your argument so well while simultaneously not offending people that disagree.

    The contrast between your writing and the dean's paragraph at the end stands out like condom floating in a swimming pool.. you notice it's not been written with the same amount of care right away after reading the first sentence.

    That said, this article needs to be read with care. For example, the end of the 7th paragraph is written strategically in order to slide a specious argument into place without ringing any bells that might wake up a hasty reader. This was perhaps unintentional, but it was still done well. I fail to see how a picture of a woman next to a car is objectifying. As for her 'reinforcing disrespect for women' ... when I first found out about this picture it reinforced my respect for women. It's easy to forget how many women become engineers despite all the struggles you mentioned they face.

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  7. Excellent, well-written article! I agree with you and the Dean's viewpoint 100%.

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  8. I was a woman in engineering (I switched to science) and I immediately agreed with the Dean's decision when I heard about this. I have no doubts that this student had the best intentions, and I am empathetic to what must be a bitter disappointment for the team since they will not be able to compete. I hope this woman won't be blamed by her classmates for this incident however I think that she was not thinking clearly in taking those pictures.

    My first reason is because I think the pictures were simply unprofessional. It would have been condemned just as strongly if a guy had taken pictures next to the car in a speedo for a calendar! Everyone would think, "Why is that guy taking his clothes off ? What's wrong with him ? Thus is crazy."

    Secondly I do think the pictures were objectifying to women simply because of the society we live in. Generally women were traditionally perceived to be good for only two things; sex and babies. Women have had to struggle and are still struggling to be respected and seen for their diverse abilities (including intelligence and the ability to be a good engineer). At the moment, women get paid 77c to the dollar that men make, why ? because on some level people perceive women's ability to do anything but provide sex/raise children as less than men's.

    I was disappointed when I heard about this woman's photo shoot. I thought, just as soon as people are beginning to look at a woman and think, "She might be a highly gifted Engineer," we are corrected by a picture of her in a bikini, and instructed that the primary purpose of a woman of which we must always be reminded is, "sex and babies." She may be in engineering, but let's not make the mistake of viewing her as an engineer, that's just a momentary diversion from her main purpose, "sex and babies."

    I also have to admit that this "posing in a bikini" incident hits a nerve for me because at my university not too long ago, the engineering "mascot" was a topless woman. The engineers used to drive around with this topless woman for their engineering promotion events. Obviously at that time the concept of a woman engineer was quite far from people's minds!

    Finally I'm aware that what I'm writing might come across as somewhat repressive of women's natural sexuality. That's not my intention. Girls will be girls, *wink wink.* In terms of women being proud of their bodies, sexuality and femininity however, it's my understanding that women have gained more ownership of their bodies and respect for their femininity primarily as a result of finding economic independence and respect for their diverse abilities. I was glad to see that the Dean seems to understand this as well from what he said about this incident being a setback to the university's attempt to make Engineering welcoming for women.

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  9. I was having some trouble posting that comment! I wanted to add at the beginning that I agree with everything you've written here. It's very articulate and obviously you've thought carefully about it. Thank you for saying this, it has been a bit frustrating hearing only about the other side of the story.

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  10. Really??? What has our society come to? After reading a few comments posted above of come to realize that some of the student body doesn't feel the way I do. Is it really only acceptable to be wearing a bikini beside a body of water? It seems to me that every year women scurry to scoop up the Fire Fighters Calendar. Men posed with their shirts off around tax paying firefighting equipment. Is the public and government cracking down on them for using their facility for the use of "racy" pictures. I think the dean has made an impulse decision that will put the University of Waterloo on the map as a sore spot within the Canadian university community.

    Also:

    "Her main purpose, "sex and babies" ????? (In response to Marisa)

    It would be impossible for you to predict her main purpose. If a bikini signifies sex and babies then I hope I don't run into you at the beach.

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  11. Wow! Thanks for the comments everyone! I'm glad to see that so many other people agree. I was mainly fed up with how all of the opinions presented were saying there was nothing wrong with the photo shoot and wanted to present what I thought was a logical argument against it. I wanted to show that you can disagree with the popular opinion (i.e. agree with the Dean) while still being respectful. Though, given the responses, it's hard to see which opinion is more popular here.

    To Nike: I don't think that the end of the 7th paragraph is specious. I was trying to briefly outline why some people think the photos were offensive but acknowledged that not all people will think so. Even so, that you think it was a premeditated sleight of hand on my part perhaps gives me too much credit! I like writing but I'm no professional; I doubt I could ever pull off something so calculating in my writing!

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  12. Hey Jeff,

    When you're criticizing this woman's decision to pose in a bikini aren't you reinforcing the same sexist tropes you rally against?

    You say that you've seen how male engineers criticize a female engineer for "not dressing a certain way" and that this lack of respect is "reinforced by the objectification of women." Isn't your criticism of her playing exactly into that?

    The bottom line is that she has full dominion over her own body. The calender needed a bathing suit shot. She commissioned those photos herself and she made the decision to style herself that way. The issues over the circumstances of the shot aside, please tell me how is a woman exercising her rights over her own body and presentation degrading and offensive to women? Are women who choose to model somehow debasing themselves?

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  13. Hi Anonymous,

    Your post was insightful and caused me to think about my perception of the situation. Thanks for commenting!

    In my opinion, I think we mainly disagree over how best to achieve sexual equality. I think people in your line of thinking believe that equality will be achieved through the pursuit of freedom (i.e. that women who freely control their bodies empower themselves and achieve the same freedom men are afforded). In contrast, I think people in my line of thinking believe that equality will be achieved through the pursuit of respect (i.e. that women who defy traditional stereotypes empower themselves and achieve the same respect men are afforded). I don't think achieving freedom necessarily equates to achieving respect and therefore the pursuit of freedom doesn't adequately address the problem of equality.

    I acknowledge that this is a very 'agree to disagree' point, but I hope you can see how people with my viewpoint would therefore see why a woman posing in a bikini for predominantly male consumption is offensive. Given the pursuit of respect rather than the pursuit of freedom, a woman posing in a bikini reinforces the idea that women are judged solely on their bodies, rather than their intellect or achievements.

    I can understand your perspective, and I hope you can understand mine, but I respectfully disagree.

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  14. well, u certainely changed my mind! I still feel sad that they got suspended and thus cannot participate in the competitions but it seems that the Dean's decision wasn't too harsh afterall.

    I would just like to thank you for delivering your points in such an objective manner and I would like to just say I am sorry I could not see this point of view earlier and kinda badmouthed the Dean while speaking with my friends.

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