Prime Directive: MIT Librarian Declares Star Trek Posters To Be Male

downloadChris Bourg, director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has issued a prime directive that “Star Trek” posters and nerdy cultural images should be removed to create a more welcoming workplace for women:  “Replace the Star Trek posters with travel posters, don’t name your projects or your printers or your domains after only male figures from Greek mythology, and just generally avoid geek references and inside nerd jokes. Those kinds of things reinforce the stereotypes about who does tech; and that stereotype is the male nerd stereotype.” It is not clear if the MIT seal is also problematic as a male dominated (and fairly geeky) cultural icon.

On her blog, Bourg insisted that

“There is research that shows that workplaces that are plastered with stereotypically ‘tech or nerd guy’ cultural images – think Star Trek – have negative impact on women’s likelihood of pursuing tech work and of staying in tech work in general or in that particular work environment.”

Bourg cites Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science which does advance this view. The authors found that “simply changing the objects in a computer science classroom from those considered stereotypical of computer science (e.g., Star Trek poster, video games) to objects not considered stereotypical of computer science (e.g., nature poster, phone books) was sufficient to boost female undergraduates’ interest in computer science to the level of their male peers.”

As someone who was viewed as a dysfunctional nerd among a school of nerds at the University of Chicago, I beg to differ.  There are plenty of female nerds. I went to school with them.  As an academic, I find this low-grade analysis to be increasingly intolerable.  First, it makes a highly dubious association of the nerd culture to male domination.  Second, it seeks to deny geeks the right to express their cultural values and icons.  Finally, it treats women as emotional snowflakes who are discomforted by a picture of Spock.

How an individual woman identifies herself or embraces cultural icons vary greatly. In her bio, Bourg herself illustrates the diversity in such identifications: “Since my gender has been misidentified too many times to ignore, let me make it very clear here: I am a cis woman. I was assigned female at birth, identify now as female, and use feminine pronouns. I also identify as butch and queer.”  In other words, gender generalities are inherently dangerous propositions.

As for Star Trek fans, Bourg’s demand for male to assimilate seems eerily familiar:

 

50 thoughts on “Prime Directive: MIT Librarian Declares Star Trek Posters To Be Male”

  1. A lot of Bourg’s claims are true. The “dubious association” you don’t believe exists between men and nerd culture is a real thing, if not in reality (as my “Voyager”-loving girlfriend will attest) then at least in the minds of male nerds, who can be very protective of domains they consider “theirs.” I also think it is reasonable to ask male workers to avoid alienating newer or non-male coworkers, as a matter of common decency and good office behavior, and several decades’ worth of studies on subliminal messaging (not to mention the psychological and storytelling framing techniques of TV and film) contradict your claim that an office tableau’s little elements are insignificant. Your arguments against her claims, like many I have read against similar cultural critiques, are dismissive and unconvincing — you seem to argue that either there IS no problem, or that the cost of changing such office cultures is too great. Personally I don’t see how taking down posters of “Star Trek,” a show which deliberately cast racially diverse and about-gender-equal performers, is constructive; I also do not think that any culture, whether that of an office or a civilization or even a friendship between two people, can be shut down or extracted without creating a good deal of resentment. But if Bourg is right then maybe, if we men were to take these requests seriously and follow more inclusive norms, an environment built on better impulses can arise in the space left over. Cultures are like that.

    On the flipside, though, the name “Chris Bourg” rivals “Paul Whiteman” for irony. Totally unrelated, but funny in a cosmic sort of way.

  2. I’m sorry, but if women refuse to participate in science and technology because there are photographs of men on the walls, then they don’t want it that badly.

    Let people follow their talents. Don’t stand in their way. However, everyone has to invest a modicum of effort into their own destiny.

  3. Prime Directive: MIT Librarian Declares Star Trek Posters To Be Male

    “To expect sense from mentalities of such extreme viewpoints is not logical.” ~ Spock

  4. Seriously, and sadly, such stories are becoming the norm. If I worked at the National Archives I would decorate my cubicle with phallic works of art. That woman is nuts!

    1. Da posters of da men gotta go. They should replace da male posters with da girly pinup centerfolds from Playboy and Hustler. That should make da men and da women happy.

      Da problem solved.

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