Women in the media

Do you ever wonder what makes something sexist? As women in engineering, you might wish for an objective way of analyzing the portrayal of women in the media. Today, I (Joy) read a web article that clearly laid out a great way of measuring the representation of women. Albeit, it uses cycling as an example, but the tool can be applied to anything. It’s called the Bechdel Test.

In her editorial article, author “Elly” concisely describes the rubric as a three part process that you should ask yourself:

(Read the complete article here; the numbered points are Elly’s word-for-word process, the indented comments are my own)

1) Are women represented at all?

Immediately the example that comes to my mind is any movie relating to technology or engineering. How often are there women engineers?

2) Are the women represented as active subjects rather than passive objects?

Back to the tech movie example: How often are the women in those movies the secretary or assistant? How often is she the lead engineer saving the day?

3) If the gender were reversed, would the meaning stay more or less unchanged? (Or would the image become hilarious?)

This one isn’t quite as obvious. It relates more to provocative images of women. For instance, just recently we took down some anime club advertisements that had a cartoon boy looking at a cartoon porn magazine. In the magazine was a naked cartoon character. Now what if the genders were reversed? What if this were a cartoon young woman looking at a pornographic image of a cartoon boy. Would the meaning change?

Elly suggests that any media that doesn’t pass all three tests should be carefully analyzed as being potentially sexist. Now, what you do with that is up to you. Personally, I’m not pro-censorship. However, today’s generation severely lacks critical thinking skills when it comes to media. Therefore, my suggestion to you is to use this metric as a way of throwing red flags. If some media gets a red flag, stop and closely think about the subliminal message.

If more of us adapt this skill, and exercise it regularly — perhaps we can change the conversation about women in engineering and ensure a future for generations to come.

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