Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Hey grrrl... the reasons why I'm furious about ESA's #shirtgate

The dust hasn't even settled yet on the amazing, incredible feat of human achievement - we have landed on Comet 67P.

HOORAH! Let me take the moment (ok many, many moments) to reiterate how wonderful this is.

And yet it was marred a little bit for me by the ESA #shirtgate incident (note that the hashtag has been reused from a previous incident on the internet, sorry about that folks).

When I opened up my social media this morning to get ready for the pre-announcements and hype (because these moments are what I live for as a scientist) I was shocked by something I saw in a colleague's post. She mentioned that the Rosetta Project Scientist Matt Taylor (@mggtTaylor) was on multiple media sources (an official BBC video, his own, and ESA's twitter feed etc.) wearing a crazy shirt. And sure enough, when I looked it up, this is what I saw:


Ok, wooaah.

There were also articles about the fact that Matt wants to challenge stereotypes of scientists and openly wear his tattoos - and this is something I whole-heartedly support. This is something I've blogged about before. It is extremely important to me that we concentrate on the science that someone has to offer rather on their appearance, because scientists come in all sizes and shapes and we should let them be just like everyone else.

So isn't this a double standard? I spend time writing about how I should be able to wear what I want as a scientist and here I am really upset by his shirt?

This is the really important reason why it is different, in case it wasn't immediately obvious to you right away. It objectifies women.

Matt's shirt portrayed several images of a naked woman, allegedly as a tribute to a sci-fi character.
He also allegedly said  on air (and this is something I'll admit I didn't hear myself - it was relayed to me):  "She's sexy, but I didn't say she was easy." [Edit: I've since been shown the link where Matt gives the "sexy" quote. He's talking about Rosetta, not the woman on his shirt! Thanks to Dave for reminding me to get the facts straight.]

Now - we have a huge problem getting women and girls into STEM fields. And spend lots of energy talking about how women aren't in science and should be (note: a Google search will yield many articles, that is just a recent one!).

And yet, here is a male scientist at a predominantly male science press conference from a male-dominated field - that is going to be broadcast to schools around the world - wearing a shirt objectifying women.

So, obviously the internet exploded. I, and many other people tweeted about it and were very angry, and later Matt changed his shirt (thank goodness before the most watched part of the landing).
But this begs the question, why did Matt choose to wear the shirt? Or rather, did he think about the message it would send? Did he care? Did anyone at the press conference even look at the shirt?

I hope that in the coming days we will hear more from Matt and/or ESA, but I feel like now I need to redouble my efforts to remind young women interested in science that yes, your mind is important. That yes, you are capable of being taken seriously in STEM fields. That yes, we do want you here (come and join me). And that no, your body isn't what defines you.

Until then, I'm going to look at pictures of the glorious mission and hope my anger subsides. It is a great day for science. It is not a super day for getting women into science.

[Edit: Thanks to Summer and Emily at @startorialist for some happier space shirt designs to brighten my day - and more here]

24 comments:

  1. Great response! FYI, here's a video of him saying the line, happens right at the beginning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZR5nee3FSis

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  2. Call me crazy but why do we want females in STEM? For some Roddenberryesque notion of diversity? What does that accomplish, really? Feeling good that statistics are satisfied, at least if we believe males and females excel equally in all fields?

    I would much rather have people in STEM areas that are there because they have a fire in their belly and a natural apptitude, as opposed to some social engineering experiment where female are mollycoddled and handheld to get them interested in STEM areas.

    If you think a shirt is going to drive women away from science, then you inadvertantly admit that you think women have only a weak interest in science. And people like that should not go into critical fields- especially if one guy's fashion statement makes them lose interest in the field.

    I also take issue with the sociological construct of "objectification". What does it even mean, really?

    We are all "objects" to each other, with things that attract us because they fill a need or desire.

    Consider the tall, strongly built man who is confident, intelligent, romantic and funny. Let's break this down to how a woman objectifies his:

    Funny: entertainer

    Tall/strong: personal security, good breeding stock, furniture mover

    Intelligence: problem solver and mechanic, good income potential

    Confidence: past record of success may indicate usefulness as a partner

    Romantic: service my emotional needs, when i want them

    So please ladies, be honest with yourselves.

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    1. Sagan, it sounds like you have experienced some level of heartbreak at the hand of a woman who may have "objectified" you in some way. I recommend you seek therapy instead of intellectualizing and projecting your pain. Otherwise, why would a comment about a t-shirt trigger such a response? As a species it is high time for men to evolve and gain greater awareness of their unconscious behaviors that perpetuate insidious gender inequity in almost every field.

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    3. It's funny you borrow Sagan's name. He was quite an avid feminist.

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    4. Call me crazy but why do we want females in STEM?

      Where would DNA research be without female fruit flies?

      ...oh, wait, you meant women?

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  3. Hey Sagan Android, I won't call you crazy, but I'm tempted to call you an idiot. Substitute the word "females" with "blacks" or "gays" or "italians" in your first paragraph, take a step back, and listen to how unbelievably stupid and bigoted that sounds. Diversity means we get the widest variety of insights and points of view which is invaluable to all scientific and technical fields. It is illogical to desire only a small subset of humanity to push forward the frontiers of science.

    Where do you think the "fire in their belly" comes from? Do you think scientists and engineers are simply born with the insatiable desire? Of course not. The fire begins with a spark, which is easily extinguished by social conditioning. As a society, we need to be careful of the messages we send.

    I was shocked and dismayed last summer when I learned that my daughter was the only one of over twenty grade seven kids enrolled in a one-week Computer science camp. Females were pioneers in the field of computer programming, yet I recently saw statistics starkly laid out in a graph that showed a reduction since the 1980s of the number of females enrolled in higher education in the field.

    Why is that? Is it because of attitudes such as yours? Is it because of an unwelcoming and hostile environment? It's not about "mollycoddling and handholding," it's about setting up an encouraging environment, free of stereotypes.

    The rest of your post about objectification is completely off the rails and pure nonsensical drivel. I can't make heads of tails of what point you're trying to make.

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  4. > Call me crazy but why do we want females in STEM?

    Because of the potential discoveries the field misses out on if we discourage talented people from contributing.

    Also, basic fairness. Some people happen to think of that as a worthwhile goal in itself. Certainly, speaking as a male scientist, I think that's true of all the people I'd like to work with.

    > If you think a shirt is going to drive women away from science, then you inadvertantly admit that you think women have only a weak interest in science.

    You may have noticed that this isn't a blog post about how the author is leaving the field because she's so discouraged by this one thing. It's a lot of little things like this building up over the course of years, many of them things guys like you and me are completely oblivious to because we've never been women. It's that we're still making it harder in completely unnecessary ways for women to enjoy being scientists, regardless of how talented, tough, or motivated they are.

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  5. Look Sagan. The reason why we want more women in science is so that we can have the best possible people in science. It's not about statistics it's about having the widest possible pool to draw talent from. I know you might dismiss #shirtstorm as a small thing. However, small things, like wearing a shirt covered in half naked women to talk about one of humankind's greatest scientific achievements might seem like a storm in a tea cup to you and to many men. However, little things like that give the impression that science is a boy's club where the women are merely decorative. To be honest to myself,as you have requested, if that club is filled with men like you sagan, I wouldn't want to join it.

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  6. I'm not sure what was worse, the shirt itself or the guys on Twitter telling him how cool it was. Mind-blowing. And Sagan Android, of course it's not about feel good numbers. Despite such spurious assumptions about women or minorities, it is far more often men who get undeserved things handed to them JUST because they are men. It's about not discouraging females from an exciting environment of learning, or equal opportunities to engage in all pursuits, by sending them the subtle messages that every single thing is for males, by males, about males, etc. -- because females must only ever be for "decor." Society sends that message to females all the time. You cannot possibly defend a shirt with scantily clad women on it, so don't try. Imagine a female scientist wearing a dress with male strippers all over it. Come on, now.

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  7. His shirt was arguably no worse than real women coming to work in formfitting dressed-to-kill attire, cleavage-revealing necklines, etc.

    Frankly I can't make out a thing on the shirt. Not that I defended it exactly. You don't go on TV dressed like that. Why?

    Because then political ideologues make the story about them, their personal social suppositions and personal anxieties rather than THE FACT THAT MAN HAS JUST LANDED A PROBE ON A FRICKIN' COMET. But you ladies keep on carrying in about a SHIRT.

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  8. This is NOT a bigger deal than landing on a freaking comet, that is absurd. Some dude wearing a weird t-shirt is not going to make anyone give up their science career. Also the notion of being offended by someone wearing something you do not agree with is just 2Putin4me

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    1. Yeah, because voicing your opinion about the kind of signals a guy so important sends about science to coming generation is totally like having your opponents assassinated.

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  9. Besides, literally no one but you said it was a bigger deal than landing the probe on the comet. Also, no one but you (and maybe one or two other dudebros taking great pride in not understanding the message) said this shirt alone would make people give up a science career. Others have explained what this is about much better than I can, no need to recap it here. Scroll up and read it.

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  10. Sad however you look at it. No coworker was bothered by the inappropriate shirt: sad. A coworker was bothered but didn't have the guts to say anything: sad. Said something but Mr. Taylor shrugged them off or, worse, defended the shirt: sad. The world freaks out when you mention that an inappropriate shirt or tattoo sleeve is a breach of basic professional decorum: sad. Blog poster seems to not understand that radically unconventional looks distract even non-judgmental, regular folks from the message being conveyed, and that looking radically unconventional to "challenge stereotypes" is juvenile: sad.

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    1. The world freaked out way before that over what kind of a shirt he wore. That is sad. People ignored the achievement that an entire team took place in for 10 years. That is Sad. You not getting that it is a piece of clothing. That is sad.

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  11. So, people want to get away from the political correctness trend, except when they don't want to... they're into freedom of speech and choice, except when it's something they don't support. What's wrong with objectifying women? One of the largest industries in existence is designed to make women easier to objectify, AND YOU ALL TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT... it's a myth that just because you enjoy, openly admire and are turned on by the sensuality and physicality of women it's the only aspect of their existence, or their being, you pay attention to... most of us humans out here are past that provincial attitude... women can be as many things to as many people as they choose to be and I for one will admire them for their brains, their creativity AND their boobs... if we quit looking, you'd all slit your wrists... go ahead, deny it. Matt! Take that shirt off, tied to a staff and raise it high! (that being said, the shirt is a bit gaudy and overly colorful for my taste, it would make a better flag than a shirt)

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  12. So, people want to get away from the political correctness trend, except when they don't want to... they're into freedom of speech and choice, except when it's something they don't support. What's wrong with objectifying women? One of the largest industries in existence is designed to make women easier to objectify, AND YOU ALL TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT... it's a myth that just because you enjoy, openly admire and are turned on by the sensuality and physicality of women it's the only aspect of their existence, or their being, you pay attention to... most of us humans out here are past that provincial attitude... women can be as many things to as many people as they choose to be and I for one will admire them for their brains, their creativity AND their boobs... if we quit looking, you'd all slit your wrists... go ahead, deny it. Matt! Take that shirt off, tie it to a staff and raise it high! (that being said, the shirt is a bit gaudy and overly colorful for my taste, it would make a better flag than a shirt)

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  13. So - are you saying that if you are a _sexy_ woman, you can't be a scientist? That seems to be your message. Just because he likes those images doesn't mean that he is objectifying or ostracizing women. That's jus silly. It's sad that he was hounded into apologising.

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  14. So to reiterate: Matt is the reason there are few women in Physics, but many in Biology? Matt is a sexist because he wore a T-shirt publicly that a female friend gave to him as a present? Without knowing anything about Matt or the precise circumstances why he wore the shirt (which he apparently did not select to buy, again it was a present from a female) that day we can be certain that he is a sexist? What Matt did has been compared by some to sexual assault. You people scare me. Seldom have I've seen such a strange combination of self-righteousness, malignity and prejudgement. I think you should be very ashamed of yourself to use an individuals appearance as a possibility to vent your anger about what is wrong with society. Deeply ashamed...

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