My part of the Twitterverse is hopping this morning. First, the publisher Elsevier sent out a letter with a picture of a bunch of scientists, all of whom are white men. Pictures like that reinforce the stereotypes that keep young women away from science.
But as if that wasn't enough, a spokesman from Elsevier went onto Twitter and made a cringeworthy mess of it all. Communications consultants: Take note!
The short version of the story goes like this: Brian O'Meara (@omearabrian) received a letter from Elsevier, took a picture of it, and posted the following tweet.
Dear Elsevier: I think the missing piece from your ad includes women and minorities as reputable researchers pic.twitter.com/DqY0aFeFbz— Brian O'Meara (@omearabrian) February 13, 2014
Elsevier's "head of corporate relations and company spokesman" first tried to write this off as being an "unintended oversight," but quickly moved to a more aggressive defense.
@omearabrian Can question if that's a smart picture to use, but promoting nobels is quite common. We do a lot to promote more women in STEM— Tom Reller, Elsevier (@TomReller) February 13, 2014
Well, Elsevier, if you do so much for promoting women, why are you so eager to undermine that work? These are our Nobel winners, they say. We can't help it if it's only men.
Not cringing yet? It gets worse. Elsevier uses a "bait and switch" technique, first asserting that the criticism really isn't about their picture but about Nobel prizes, and then denying responsibility for the Nobel process.
@hormiga You want me to apologize for the fact that more women don't win nobel prizes? And how exactly should I fix that today?— Tom Reller, Elsevier (@TomReller) February 13, 2014
Here's how you can fix it, Elsevier: Show leadership. Be bold. Make an impact. You could, for example, have written something like this in your letter.
We'd like to show you a picture of Nobel winners who have published with us because we're proud that we bring some of the world's most important research into the public arena. Unfortunately, when we looks at those pictures, they are all white men. We are not part of selecting Nobel prize winners. But we do care about science. We believe that half of the next generation of brilliant scientists will be women. We want to encourage them and we know from research on stereotypes that publishing a collage of the pictures of our Nobel winners will reinforce the view that science is a man's domain. We don't want to be part of that.
Elsevier does do work to promote women in STEM. What we learned today, though, is that promoting gender equality requires constant attention and awareness. Even those who work to promote it, when they forget, revert into "unintended" actions that are exactly the root of the problem.
We also learned how not to deal with mistakes. At least some of us did.