by Sharon Florentine

Microsoft’s ad missed the mark but opened eyes

Apr 20, 2017

Microsoft's latest Women in STEM ad misses the point. Unless the point is to blame women for their own oppression.

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Credit: Thinkstock

Microsoft’s diversity and inclusion page starts off with this sentence, “In over 20 years of committed diversity and inclusion efforts, we’ve learned that diversity is not a finite goal; it is a journey that requires constant self-assessment and recommitment.”

That’s cool. They might want to “reassess” their latest ad campaign, however, aimed at encouraging young girls to stay in STEM fields.

The ad starts out innocently enough. Young girls express their desire to use innovations and advancements in technology and STEM to combat climate change, cure breast cancer, explore virtual reality technology and the like. “Seeing these things; It makes you feel, like, unstoppable!” one girl says.

Then, the gut-punch. The girls are shown a statistic that only 6.7 percent of girls end up graduating with STEM degrees. And then they’re told to “Change the world” by “staying in STEM.”

I watched the ad, and then I rage-closed the browser window and slammed my laptop shut. I felt hopeless. I was angry. I was frustrated, sad and annoyed. But aside from being able to identify those feelings, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that bothered me about this. Even though I was mad, I didn’t really understand what was at the core of that, other than the usual, “Ugh, I can’t believe we still have to put up with this crap in 2017,” and “Don’t you dare tell me what I can or can’t do!” sentiment.

And then, a Facebook friend — who happens to be a woman in tech — posted a link to this blog post from Monica Byrne that put into words exactly what I’d been feeling underneath that anger (boy, those algorithms are quite good).

Byrne writes, “Microsoft, where’s your ad campaign telling adult male scientists not to rape their colleagues in the field? Where’s the campaign telling them not to steal or take credit for women’s work? Or not to serially sexually harass their students? Not to discriminate against them? Not to ignore, dismiss or fail to promote them at the same rate as men? Not to publish their work at a statistically significant lower rate? … Or to pay women at the same rate as men? I could keep linking articles all day. But I’m tired. Everyone’s noses have been shoved in these same datasets for decades and nothing changes.

There’s a reason women and girls leave STEM. It is because STEM is so hostile to women that leaving the field is an act of survival. It was for me.”

Oh — there it is. That’s what I couldn’t identify — victim-blaming! It’s OUR fault, as women, for not sticking with STEM. It’s OUR fault for not wanting to stay in fields that refuse to acknowledge our dignity, our humanity and our abilities above and beyond our physical attractiveness. It’s OUR fault we’re sexually harassed and assaulted at work. It’s OUR fault. It’s the same kind of half-assed, “girl power,” corporate-approved feminism that, as Amanda Marcotte explains in this article about the Fearless Girl statue that sits in front of Wall Street’s charging bull, “…suggest that the main thing standing between women and equality is not oppression, but their own inferiority — that if they stopped being so fearful and started being more fearless, then that nasty old sexism would just wither away… But the problem isn’t and has never been that girl’s — or women’s — lack of strength or a work ethic… If strength and fearlessness were all it took to defeat sexism, then we would have licked that problem long ago. No, the reason for women’s lack of equality is that there’s an ingrained and well-organized system to clip the wings of women and keep them in their place,” Marcotte writes.

This kind of insidious messaging — that it’s all girls and young womens fault that there aren’t more of them in STEM fields and that we just need to persevere to fix it — is part of that system, and it’s the ultimate form of gaslighting. Even I fell for it; it took reading Byrne’s post to understand what, exactly, was going on underneath the surface of that slick advertisement. And that pisses me off even more.

I’ll finish by quoting Byrne again, as she sums it up quite well: “Microsoft, do not dump this … on the shoulders of young girls. It’s not their responsibility; it’s the responsibility of those in power. That means you.”

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