Businessweek is not exactly a hotbed of controversy most of the time, unless of course you disagree with their social and economic positions. However, even the most staid of publications has to show its ass occasionally, and they did it recently with a poll asking readers to rank business schools by the most attractive students of both sexes. It’s the poll ranking women that attracted the most attention, though, because of the deeper ties there with attitudes about women’s bodies; if you’re a lady in public, you’re apparently consenting to be “ranked” and anything else that might go with that.
Rank this, monkeys
School rankings are hardly anything new, and they range from the cutesy to the highly useful. When I was researching colleges, for example, I looked up the top party schools so I could strike them from my list of potentials, because there are few things I loathe more than loud crowds of people, except possibly large crowds of drunk people. Crowdsourced rankings like this one are easy to do thanks to social media, and they can furnish some very interesting results as people talk about their experiences as students and alumni.
These polls -- and I am thinking of both of them, although the women’s poll in particular bothers me -- were just gross. Women students already struggle with sexual harassment in business school in particular, and polls like these only encourage male students to think of them as perks of an MBA, rather than human beings. Women in business schools are going there with serious educational goals in mind, not to get their MRS degrees or to be pawed at by dudebros who think that kind of behavior is both hilarious and acceptable because they’re acculturated to think of women as objects.
This kind of “hot chick ranking” is humiliating and degrading, undermining both the publication it runs in and the school itself. One issue that can arise with social media polls is the tendency to try to stack the vote as people compete against each other; from the perspective of the poll’s engineers, this is part of the goal, to spur page views and drum up excitement. In a poll like this one, though, people are being actively asked to objectify students at the school, and sometimes themselves. Women might feel pressured into helping their schools “win” by encouraging everyone to vote, making a joke out of it instead of expressing discomfort with the idea that their presence on campus is about being eye candy, not serious students.
It may be “just a poll” but it speaks to larger social attitudes and it’s troubling. It’s an example of the kind of pervasive everyday sexism that dogs women wherever they go; it's just one paper cut, but eventually enough paper cuts rack up to do serious damage. As a single, isolated incident, this is the kind of thing I would probably laugh off as juvenile and poorly thought out. But it’s not an isolated incident, because it occurred in a larger cultural context. Ranking women by their perceived fuckability, because that’s what this is about, does not occur in a vacuum.
Businessweek flails to respond to users
Clearly a lot of people on the Internet were disturbed, and they voiced their upset loud and clear, attacking Businessweek for running the polls and demanding a response.
Watching companies go through social media crises like this is always fascinating for me, and fortunately there are ample opportunities to study varying responses because companies do things like this on a regular basis. Their reactions fall into a wide array of responses from fiercely defiant to abjectly apologetic to trying to pretend like nothing ever happened, but what all of these companies don’t seem to realize is that the Internet never forgets.
In the case of Businessweek, the company took the “trying to pretend like nothing ever happened” tack in response to the situation; it scrubbed the polls from its site and any references to them from its Twitter. Google Cache, naturally, captured the evidence, and plenty of people got screenshots of the polls while they were up, so it’s not like the company could avoid responsibility for making what was rather a boneheaded move.
Which is why the publication’s head of communications, Rachel Nagler, was forced to issue a statement addressing the situation before it spun any more out of control: “[The polls] were in poor taste and undermine the tremendous value our Business Schools vertical provides.” Smart move, Businessweek and Nagler, although if it had come a little sooner maybe not as many people would have been baying for your blood.
Changing the way we deal with PR crises
Contrast Businessweek’s rather sluggish and anemic response with that of No Doubt earlier this month in response to criticism of the “Looking Hot” video, which featured exoticized scenes of Native Americans and a panoply of cultural appropriation. People responded with outrage and horror, and they yanked the video the very next day, issuing an apology; the media team there realized the urgency of a prompt and decisive response, and they issued it, cutting their losses on the video in the interest of making it clear that a lesson had been learned.
Firms like Businessweek are attempting to adapt to a landscape where social media results in rapid accountability, and some are having a rough time. They’re slow to build up effective social media teams, ungainly when they respond to crises, and often unaware of their blunders until it’s too late, despite the ample research material available.
What things like this show us is that despite the fact that these ideas go through several people, including teams of individuals, they get approved anyway. And that speaks either to a lack of consciousness about the problems with them, a fear of speaking up among people who do identify a problem, or a form of insulating groupthink that allows people to convince themselves that what they’re doing is okay. Given the frequency with which these crises arise, it’s clear that a better strategy for handling them is needed, unless companies want to continue offending their supposed base.