Gender equality mutilation, or how Elsevier went cringeworthy

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.


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.


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.


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. At least 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.

(Update: Several hours after posting this blog entry, Elsevier published a reply under the title Elsevier agrees with criticism about the lack of gender diversity in a recent email campaign.)


This post also appears at HuffingtonPost, under the title The communications guy bet the gender equality policy and lost.

About Curt Rice

My interest in leadership development at universities affects most of what I do, whether it’s working on gender balance issues, developing policies about Open Access, promoting research-based education or just about anything else. I'm a professor at the University of Tromsø, where I've spent the last decade serving first as the head of a Center of Excellence (2002-2008) and then as the Vice President for Research & Development (prorektor for forskning og utvikling) (2009-2013). I'm currently a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study.

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