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Calendar compromises engineers

TO ANYONE who has compared Engineering School women to Rottweilers with graphing calculators: Watch out. The Rottweilers are planning to bite back.

The Girls of the E-School 2001 Calendar is an effort led by two female Engineering students to erase the stereotype that Engineering School women are ugly. In doing so, they wish to encourage women whose interest in engineering might be abated by the stereotype. Unfortunately, their methods and rhetoric have tainted their good intentions.

"The point isn't to divert attention from [Engineering School women's] intelligence, but to highlight that they are also beautiful," project manager Anita Bhushan said in a personal interview. Nonetheless, the group's first publicity method was to post flyers around the Engineering School sarcastically proclaiming such things as "E-School Girls look like ASS." This probably wasn't the best way to keep the attention on their intellect.

Many feminists have fought for years to eradicate the perception that women are nothing more than the sum of their waistline and bra size. Engineering School women epitomize those who have had the courage to buck society's "girls and calculus don't mix" message and excel in the fields of math and science. For these very women to turn around and point out the importance of perceptions about their physical appearance raises some questions about the success of the feminist movement.

One of the major avenues of publicity is their Web site. On it, one can find such quotes as, "... we hope to gather the most beautiful and intelligent women in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Virginia and present their beauty in the best way possible." Substitute "the world" for "the School of Engineering," and you've got a motto Hugh Hefner would be proud to call his own.

To this, Bhushan responds that they plan to include the women's interests and school achievements along with their pictures on the calendar. It still sounds one step away from "turn-ons" and "turn-offs." The calendar, however, will not be particularly explicit - the Web site states that the creators have banned swimsuits and that they "are not going for straight sex appeal."

Also misleading is the Web site's inclusion of pictures of Victoria's Secret, Vogue and Elle models - several in their underwear. Somehow, this seems to clash with Bhushan's stated goal of creating "female role models who are engineers." None of the Victoria's Secret models are shown calculating derivatives.

Perhaps this is most disheartening because of the admirable intentions that underlie this pursuit - intentions they've done little to propagate. While Bhushan admits that part of the purpose is to "poke fun" at the idea that Engineering School women are hideous, the joke has other undertones. Fearing that some women equate entering the Engineering School to exiting womanhood, the calendar's creators aim to show that it is possible to be a feminine math nerd.

To further this goal, they plan to start a mentoring program for local high school and middle school students who show an interest in the engineering field. Part of this mentoring program will be what Bhushan calls "a traveling show." The show would feature presentations by women in the calendar citing their successes in the engineering field and encouraging prospective females to enter engineering. The creators intend to use the profits derived from calendar sales to pay for the costs of the program and its "traveling show."

Further, Bhushan and her colleagues seem to understand how their idea could be misunderstood and aim to combat this misperception. In response to criticism, they have spoken with the University's chapters of NOW and the Society of Women Engineers and have procured these groups' verbal support. The fact that these conversations were held privately, while other aspects of the project have been made public, allows misperceptions to endure.

To this point, the calendar has piqued the interest of over 40 potential models and five photographers. It is clear to anyone who has spent an hour speaking with one of the creators that no one has signed on in an effort to exploit women. It's safe to assume, however, that most people don't care enough to take that hour and find out this information for themselves. Thus, those in charge of this operation should let the University community know they have more to say than E-School girls don't look like ASS.

(Chris DelGrosso's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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