A poster advertising a BYU club’s Wednesday night activity took the internet by storm… and not in a good way. A club member created a letter-size poster with photographs of invited speakers for the monthly activity. This student then put those photographs at the top of the page, above a prominent display of the club’s name.
Whoa. Wait, what’s the problem again?
The problem is the club is called “Women in Math,” and all those pictured speakers above that club title were male professors. Another female undergraduate student saw the advertisement on campus, took a photo, and posted to Twitter asking incredulously, “Is this satire?” Outrage ensued, and the story was picked up by major media outlets like the Huffington Post and Salt Lake Tribune. Local TV stations also weighed in: KUTV News and Fox 13 News. (Media outlets owned by the LDS Church, KSL TV and the Deseret News, didn’t seem to find it newsworthy. Update 2/24/18: About 12 hours after this post was published at Wheat and Tares, the Deseret News finally published an article about the poster, and KSL shared that news article on their Facebook page late last night.)
The BYU Math department performed damage control with what I thought was a pretty good response on their Facebook page:
But, some people didn’t appreciate parts of the response, like the fact that people “got a good laugh” at the department. (I didn’t mind that bit; I laughed nervously when I first saw the poster, too.) And they didn’t like throwing the student under the bus by suggesting despite good intentions it was “poor judgment.” So the message has since been edited:
Funny thing is, something similar to this happened a few years ago, but there wasn’t nearly as much uproar.
In August 2014, a poster was released by the LDS Church advertising a special “Sisters’ Meeting” in Europe. The event was for all women, ages 12 and up. So who did they display to get sisters excited for this event? Well, men, of course. On the poster were the smiling faces of Elder M. Russell Ballard, Elder David A. Bednar, and Elder Donald L. Hallstrom. A news reporter from the Salt Lake Tribune asked the church about the curious design choice, and, well, she got a response from a church spokeswoman:
“The list of speakers for the meeting has not been finalized,” [Jessica] Moody said Tuesday, “and will definitely include female speakers.”
The meeting did end up having female speakers, as reported by Wheat & Tares blogger Hedgehog, an attendee. One was a Stake Relief Society President, and the other two were wives of visiting authorities (Elder Hallstrom and Elder Patrick Kearon). So, I mean, even if they did have the full line-up ready, would those women really have made the poster? Probably not. It makes sense the poster would highlight the most important speakers, and any member of the church would recognize that Ballard, Bednar, and Hallstrom, as the highest ranking authorities, would be the strongest draws.
But, just because it makes sense from one angle doesn’t mean it’s the wisest course of action. Remember how I phrased the description of the Women in Math poster at the beginning of the post? It’s just photographs of speakers above the name of the club. It makes sense. But, as the BYU Math department initially pointed out, in spite of good intentions there was some poor judgment. And it’s not that the female student who made the poster isn’t smart (hello, Women in Math people), it’s that she failed to see what the poster would look like to an outsider. She saw four professors totally supportive of women in mathematics graciously accepting the invitation to speak to interested undergrads (btw, I highly recommend watching Fox 13’s 2-minute coverage of Wednesday night’s activity. That room was packed with women). But with recent tensions, other people just saw further proof that BYU doesn’t respect women’s voices. With a university that already has a much smaller percentage of female professors compared to other schools, it’s low-hanging fruit to point out that, even when narrowing the field to just math departments among Utah schools, BYU has dramatically lower female representation among math faculty. The poster just amplified the message that women’s voices are scarce (yet a quick glance over the BYU Math Department’s Facebook posts from the past 6 months clearly shows support for women).
It was a similar issue with the 2014 European meeting poster. It was only a couple months after Kate Kelly‘s excommunication (of Ordain Women fame), and gender disparity among church leadership was still a sensitive subject. Cynthia L. at By Common Consent wrote, “How is it possible that not one person in these meetings noticed that this flyer has really, really bad optics?” Jana Reiss at Religion News Service made the point that even moderate feminists not looking for priesthood, like Neylan McBaine, would’ve picked up on possible problematic messages ahead of time. Yet there was no indication that the church saw anything wrong.
But there are times when the church does have effective damage control when unintended messages are sent. A little over a year ago, Wheat & Tares blogger Andrew S. pointed out some serious racial undertones with a youth song published by the church. The song, “White,” was based on Isaiah 1:18 and talked about how the red stains of sin could be washed away and our hands made white. Even though the songwriter (and the church) never intended for the message to be anything other than metaphorical, our history with tying righteousness to skin color added a dimension that someone obviously hadn’t considered. The church pulled the piece, and spokesman Eric Hawkins explained, “It’s important to church leaders that there not be feelings of offense or misunderstanding associated with the song.”
When it comes to sensitive issues in this church, like gender and race, messages intended aren’t always the ones received. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again. But, hopefully, it inspires introspection, discussion, and understanding–on both sides.