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Fighting the Not-So-Secret Boys' Club of Model United Nations

Darya Farah Foroohar

March 12th, 2019

If you take a look around the world, you’ll see that most of the top jobs– in every field– are still occupied by men. The stereotype that men make better leaders is one that is difficult to shake off, perhaps due to the false notion that that men are better at public speaking and more knowledgeable about substantive topics, while women are better at “softer” ones, good at team building but not actually leading. Women have to fight hard to make sure their voices are not drowned out, made fun of, and ignored. However, lately this issue has become more widely recognized. Our generation is supposed to combat discrimination; today’s young men are supposed to be more open-minded and less blatantly sexist. Many girls and women are encouraged to try speaking in public with support from their male counterparts. But in high-pressure activities such as Model United Nations, where judgement is based not only on the quality of your ideas, but on how well you can manipulate others, inherent biases which mirror the discrimination faced by women in the world outside of committee are brought to the surface almost unconsciously.

 

When I joined my school’s MUN team, I was aware of the stereotypes surrounding women in leadership and thus of possibility that I might not be taken as seriously because of my gender, but I didn’t want it to be true. I thought that by worrying about it, I would only convince myself of sexism that did not exist outside of my own mind. And so I ignored the bossy tone of voice used on me by an older male delegate who was much friendlier with his male counterparts. I brushed aside the fact that I’d never seen a committee in which only girls got awards, while I had seen many in which they were only given to boys. I looked past the instances in which male delegates seemed to look through me or seemed as if they were holding back a laugh whenever I shared my ideas. I told myself that my ideas were just simply bad, that maybe if I practiced public speaking more, I could command the room as some of the guys did, that there were girls who had experienced real harassment and so I was being childish and not focusing on the actual problem: myself.

 

Still, I couldn’t shake the worry that my every action was under more scrutiny because of my gender, and so I stressed over outfit choices, wondering if I should try to make myself look hyper-masculine or embrace my femininity. I debated between speaking passionately and speaking calmly, hoping my choice wouldn’t make me seem either too emotional or too quiet. I tried to change my appearance and demeanor to fit the ideal of the perfect delegate, not realizing that this ideal was made to fit someone I could never be.

 

All my fears were realized at my most recent conference, though I tried to deny it to myself for as long as possible. In my committee, there was both overt and covert sexism, the former happening when one of the other delegates sent some of the girls creepy text messages and groped one of them. His actions were reported, and he was rightfully forced to leave committee. This incident brought light to the fact that actions which should be considered unacceptable are still the norm for some boys and men who have gotten away with them all their lives. However, this explicit misogyny only covered the instances of casual sexism which happened throughout my three days at the conference.

 

As soon as the first unmoderated caucus (where delegates can get up out of their seats and talk to one another) started, I found that attention was focused on my male friend; other delegates were talking almost exclusively to him—and ignoring me—until I directly asked them questions. I chalked this off to the fact that he had gotten to speak when I hadn’t, as well as the fact that he was representing a more powerful country than I was, but this kept happening even after I had addressed the entire room and brought up issues, such as national sovereignty and imperialism, that would shape the committee session afterwards. I found it frustrating to try and get attention from people who only seemed to care about the boys I was working with and who hardly let me get a word in edgewise, but since cooperation is a key part of Model UN, I had to keep trying with my anger under wraps.

 

There was one girl in my committee (representing Norway) who was able to command attention, but she had to do much more work than most of the boys to do so; her paper was extremely comprehensive and had the support of many other delegates, and yet she had to compete with boys who had barely written a sentence. Everyone labelled her as bossy and annoying, and I admit I thought the same of her, irked at her success while I was struggling to be recognized for my contributions to our paper. Our groups eventually joined forces (combining ideas is a fundamental part of MUN), and the boys in our bloc worked to water down her influence– something I was grateful for at first, not wanting her to take all the credit for our paper even though it was a boy, not her, who had taken credit for a clause I wrote and then tried to explain it back to me after slightly changing it.

 

All these tensions boiled over during the initial presentation of our paper, which consisted of a summary and a question and answer session. I rose to present, but sat back down when I noticed that several guys had also gotten up, nervous and not wanting to face the humiliation of being forced to walk back to my seat. Norway had also risen, and we both sat down to see one of the guys get sent back in favor of another girl who served as the token female of our group. I sat seething, angry at both the guys and at myself for doubting my contributions. My frustration grew when most of the questions asked were about a clause that I had co-written with another female delegate. The guys presenting gave very vague answers that missed the point of the clause, and I shared a look of shock and rage with my co-author. I suddenly realized my main obstacle from being recognized was not any of the other girls, but the guys who refused to acknowledge our contributions– or simply didn’t realize that we were capable of contributing anything worthwhile. There was another, more important, presentation session the next day, and I made a vow to myself to be one of those who got to go up. But I needed allies. I talked to my co-author and, going against what I had previously believed, the girl representing Norway, telling them that all three of us deserved to present the paper and that we couldn’t let ourselves be taken advantage of by the guys in our bloc.

 

The next day I ran into more trouble, as the boys in my bloc would constantly talk to each other instead of to the entire group; two started talking to each other about the presentation while I was five feet away without acknowledging me until I inserted myself into the conversation. Furthermore, the guys who had presented the day before refused to give me and my female co-delegates the full presentation time, saying that we needed them “to answer the tough questions.” When I asked them, enraged, why they didn’t think that we had the capabilities to answer questions about our paper, they backed down, perhaps not realizing that their words were demeaning. And indeed, it was almost impossible for me to explain to them that they were being sexist, because they did not realize why their actions were problematic. Their behavior was an unconscious product of societal stereotypes that manifested in subtle exclusion and ignorance. If I had asked them about it, it’s entirely possible that they would have first called me too dramatic and emotional and then totally disregarded everything else I would say hereafter. Thus, I had to argue with them without getting at the real issue of my anger. Eventually, sick of their attempts to undermine me and my female friends, I told them that they could do whatever they wanted, but that the three of us were staying up for the entire presentation and that they could do nothing about it.

 

The rest of committee after the presentation, where I had to speak as quickly as possible to prevent myself from being interrupted, was a blur with the exception of complaints brought to me by some of the other girls that the guys weren’t letting them speak. I tried to bring this up with the guys, but it was too late to make any major changes. I had helped myself and a few other girls, but I couldn’t help everyone, even though I wanted to. Still, I am proud of how I acted. I am proud of how I reached out to a girl who I had previously found annoying and found friendship and solidarity. I am proud of how I worked with other female delegates instead of just throwing them under the bus. It would have been so easy to talk to guys and say that the other girls were being too emotional or going off-policy on our paper, but if I had done this, I would have been simply a puppet in the patriarchal system that forces women to fight each other instead of work together to fight for their rights. In the end, all three of us girls got awards, and I am proud of that as well. My experience showed me that because I am female, having good ideas isn’t enough; I also need to fight to make them heard, because just hoping that the world will be fair and that I will be recognized is futile. However, I also learned that banding together to fight bias can create real change and alter a situation that may seem permanently unjust. My goal for future MUN conferences is not just to make sure that I get recognized, but also to speak up for the other people in the room who feel ignored and used.

 

The story does not end here. It was not just me and the other girls in my committee who face the subtle yet powerful effects of misogyny. After I got home, I went on a popular MUN site, BestDelegate, and found countless articles describing instances of sexism in MUN in high school, in college, and while running a conference. Intrigued, I turned to social media, asking people who participate in Model UN to describe their experiences with sexism. The answers were almost all in agreement that MUN condones a lot of misogynist behaviors, although a few people (all guys) reported that sometimes the pretty girls get called on more often than guys. These exceptions also help show the inherent biases of MUN: even when girls get favored, it is because of their looks, rather than their ideas.

 

Many guys agreed that sexism was a prevalent issue, and some of the girls described their experiences, which ranged from guys sending them crude notes to their ideas being ignored and then praised when a boy said the exact same thing. Similar to my experience, one girl (who would like to remain anonymous) noted how “several times, I said an idea, was ignored, then had another male delegate restate my idea and the whole room applauded the male delegate on his ‘innovative work.’” Another issue brought up, which I did not face, was the lack of female delegates in committee—for example, one girl noted that there was only one other female delegate in the room with her. This situation is especially problematic because it only reinforces the idea that girls do not belong in the committee room and may cause some female delegates so lose interest in Model UN because they are intimidated and simply do not see anyone like them. All the detailed responses I received were from girls who had been ignored, harassed, or belittled because of their gender. This treatment is clearly a universal issue and one that must be stopped. But why has is been going on for so long?

 

One possible reason is that the sexism that has influenced so many girls’ MUN experiences is largely unconscious. Many of the behaviors exhibited towards women are those which have been ingrained into boys’ heads since they were very little, and it is difficult to break a pattern of thinking. Model UN is all about power dynamics, so many male delegates may think they are simply showing off their power or being a good leader as they exhibit sexist behaviors, not realizing the inherent biases which cause them to exclude female delegates. The boys I worked with were very nice people outside of committee. They were all nice, some were funny, and a few were my good friends. They apologized for their actions once committee was over, blaming it on the pressure of MUN (which is extremely intense if you want to do well). And it is true that Model UN often brings out a delegate’s most competitive qualities, which can often lead to them using backhanded methods in order to obtain an award. Although I have no doubt that part of boys’ actions was spurred by this competition, they still managed to talk to their fellow guys without seeming to ignore them or speak over them. MUN did more than bring out their aggressive, competitive qualities– it revealed their inherent biases through their actions in committee and their willingness to prioritize men over women in a high intensity situation.

 

These inherent biases, easy to see once such actions are analyzed, do not appear explicitly sexist to an outside observer who has not experienced the same treatment, and therefore women are less inclined to speak up about such instances for fear of being ignored and taken even less seriously than before. If you bring up the sexism preventing you from sharing your ideas in the middle of a discussion about sanctions or nuclear disarmament, you will get scoffed at for interrupting the discussion, the guys in your group exchanging glances and then meeting up later without you to discuss the issues they wouldn’t have shared with you anyway. Even though I never uttered the word “sexism,” whenever I raised questions of fairness or exclusion to my male counterparts, I was met with uneasy glances, excuses, denial, or the phrases “it’s too late now” and “it’s just MUN.” I was lucky to have female chairs who were sympathetic when I asked them after the conference about how I could stand up for myself, but many committees do not have female chairs, which means that girls will have an even more difficult time bringing up issues of misogyny and even harassment. The fact that it's difficult to notice this sexism is exactly what makes it even more important that we address it– it has effects on everything from demographics within committees to awards to how girls feel walking away from a conference.

 

Possible solutions to this matter involve actively listening to the women in the room and forcing yourself to consider the way you are judging a female delegate or chair. Even though MUN is very fast paced, it is important to take a step back and ask yourself if the girl you are ignoring really has such terrible ideas or if you are just assuming her ideas are irrelevant without actually having fully listened to them. If the answer is the latter, you must ask yourself why. It is so easy to ignore female delegates by using the excuse that “I didn’t know her ideas were good” or “she didn’t push for them enough.” Stop putting the blame on female delegates and take some initiative: instead of trying to speak as much as possible, really absorb what female delegates are saying (it might help you improve your ideas as well). Instead of asking why the sole girl in your bloc didn’t stand up to the circle of guys constantly talking over her, open up the discussion and ask her about her ideas regarding the topic. Instead of painting a girl as rude, bossy, or controlling, ask yourself if her actions would be considered as such if she were a guy. These behaviors may not seem like much, but if everyone did them, they would transform not only Model UN, but the world outside of committee as well.

 

I can only hope that more people in committee consider the implications of their actions on those around them. After having learned my lesson in that conference, I will work to stop my own internal biases from dictating my movements. But I understand that not everyone will do the same, and that any change that happens will be slow. I still struggle to imagine myself commanding the same level of attention as a guy in a suit, and this thought sometimes discourages me. I wonder how I can ever be a leader if no one wants to follow me for just being myself. But I also understand that to give up would be to surrender to the patriarchal system that tells me I should not speak up and stand up for myself. So I plan to keep going to conferences, to keep speaking up for myself and the other girls in my committee, and to keep fighting sexism, not only in Model UN, but in the world that surrounds me.