The world has been abuzz with news that the Rosetta spacecraft landed on a comet 500 million kilometres from Earth, in an attempt to collect vital data about the origins of our solar system. The aim is to benefit humanity. Unfortunately, this event is also marred for women in STEM and our allies due to the pervasive power of sexism. Rosetta Project scientist Matt Taylor chose to wear a shirt with semi-nude women, effectively telling the world and our next generation of STEM workers that sexism is still very much part of our professional culture.
By the way, this is not the first time he’s publicly worn this shirt. He tweeted that he received the shirt as a present in early October and none of his 2,700 followers on Twitter paid attention. Most worrying is that he is photographed in an office – which suggests he may have worn this shirt to work and none of his management nor colleagues pointed out the inappropriate attire.
This comes only a couple of weeks since The New York Times declared that sexism in academia is dead (as we noted, this claim was based on a highly flawed study). What this wardrobe choice says is that some male scientists in strategic positions for major science organisations do not see equality as a serious issue. Taylor works for the European Space Agency and he is prominently featured on a NASA website.
Some people may see Taylor’s dress as harmless or eccentric. For example, the UK newspaper, the Daily Mail, basically calls Taylor a rockstar, highlighting public comments on his tattoos and his “wild dress sense.” Erin Brodwin, journalist with The Business Insider science column, however, was not having any of that nonsense. Brodwin focused solely on the issue of sexism, noting that Taylor had recently answered questions on his acceptance as a scientist despite his tattoos. Taylor said then: “The people I work with don’t judge me by my looks but only by the work I have done and can do. Simple.” Brodwin notes with irony: “If only women could hope to someday be judged that way too.”
Analytical Chemist Dr Raychelle Burks noted that a prominent scientist appearing before the world’s media might have chosen a different shirt to make a statement about STEM. If he wanted to appear with a woman on his shirt, why not try Ada Lovelace? Or any other prominent woman in astronomy and astrophysics whose fight for inclusion reshaped space history? Instead of celebrating STEM at this momentous event, women are reminded of our objectification and exclusion.
This matters on many levels: it matters because of the uphill battle we face in STEM fields trying to get everyone to understand that sexism in STEM is an issue that affects us all. It matters because girls are continually told that STEM is not for them. It matters because people want to find excuses for the under-representation of girls and women, rather than focusing on solutions.
Some people on social media are under-playing this incident, telling women scientists to stop spoiling the achievement with feminist discussions. One woman tweets at astronomy Professor Jennifer Hoffman, “We’ve officially all become prudes.” Another man accuses feminism for bumming out a momentous feat. Professor Hoffman argues this is not about prudishness, it’s about professional respect of women colleagues:
The reason why some people are under-playing the significance of Taylor’s choice of shirt goes to the heart of the way in which sexism works. Sexism is not simply maintained through active harassment and discrimination. It thrives because of deeply held values that go unexamined, which come out through thoughtless everyday actions, such as what people say and do.
A White, heterosexual male can take it for granted that he can wear whatever he wants, even if it alienates his women peers. Everyday sexism doesn’t require intent or conscious motivation. It simply relies on ignorance about the problem of inequality, full stop. Writing about Taylor’s shirt, Professor Thomas Levenson muses:
“Maybe he’s just clueless stem to stern, with no idea how what he might say or do affects anyone around him… But as we’ve learned over and over again in issues of race, of gender discrimination, of same-sex rights, it’s not what you believe that matters. It’s what you do — and Taylor chose to wear this shirt in front of the largest audience he’s ever likely confront. He may or many not be a sexist guy; he did a sexist thing, one with real world implications.”
Taylor changed his shirt later on, which suggests someone told him it was inappropriate. Notably, this happened after he’d already been broadcast live across the globe and people were talking about his shirt. Why didn’t the ESA step in before the controversy started? It’s an outcome of the dominant culture in STEM, which is still male-centred. Researcher Lydia Hopper summarises this acutely:
“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.”
Palaeontologist Francois Gould argued that Taylor, a White British man, may have been attempting to fight the general stereotype of the scientist as an out-of-touch intellectual. Gould notes that in Britain’s deeply entrenched class system, it’s important to present alternative images of scientists as people who can come from working class backgrounds. Yet as Gould notes, Taylor not only failed women, but also working class children, by having spoiled the opportunity to show an alternative role model. Plus, Gould points out that Taylor is not really representing working class people given his status as a White male heading a major space organisation. This is about owning up to the class divides, as well as racial, gender and sexual inequalities in STEM:
When you stick it to the man, be careful that you don’t throw women, or anyone else under the bus in the process. And when you become the head of a major international space project, remember that you are no longer quite the underdog you once were. In fact you have power, and visibility, and a platform. You will be judged on how you make use of them.
The point is that there are better ways for space agencies to celebrate diversity, as this collage by biology teacher Stephen Taylor shows.
White, Heterosexual STEM Men Stepping Up
Entomologist, Professor Terry Wheeler, noted that this #ShirtStorm incident is an important lesson for STEM men like himself, who are senior researchers and have White male privilege. Prof Wheeler notes that his gender, race and heterosexuality protect him from the problems women and minorities face in their careers and in their daily enjoyment of STEM:
“We need to make science and research and academia a fair and welcoming place for people who are not white, straight, males. I’m not entirely sure how we’re going to get there. But there are two things I do know for certain:
1. We are only going to get there if senior, white dudes like me either step up and say “yes, let’s change things” and then work to make that change happen, or just shut up and get out of the way.
2. We are not going to get there if some of our visible scientists use their brief moments in the spotlight to convey a message (unintentional or not!) that females are better suited to being decorations than to being colleagues.”
What Can You Do?
Tropical Biology Professor Terry McGlynn, another senior White male scientist, argues that the STEM community needs to take action:
“Taylor just failed in his duty as an ambassador for science…. Getting upset isn’t getting caught up in a passing social trend — it’s actually the only reasonable course of action.”
Professor McGlynn outlines two general ways the STEM community can help to address the impact of this incident:
- Write to the ESA and NASA to let them know this behaviour should not be tolerated. We note that the response should be public so we know what these prominent space agencies plan to do to prevent similar incidents in future.
- Speak out. STEM professionals should continue conversations on social media to show the world that practitioners care about eradicating everyday sexism.
I would add another suggestion: formally make time with your colleagues and your organisations to have an honest and safe discussion about this and the other examples of sexism in STEM. This year alone on STEM Women we have covered sexist graphical abstracts in science journals; sexist and transphobic “click bait” images in popular science publications; and media articles trying to perpetuate the myth that girls can’t do STEM. I’ve also covered inequality in science fellowships. All of these incidents were effectively swept under the rug by the respective organisations, as we’ve seen little public follow up. There are too many other examples of sexism getting a free pass. We’ve all heard the deflections: “maybe he didn’t know any better,” “maybe it’s cultural,” “at least things are better than before.”
We don’t need these excuses.
What we need most of all is for men to speak up. It’s not enough to say you support equality unless men use their position of relative power to actively help change the culture in STEM.
Professor Katie Hinde made a similar plea on Twitter. She was part of the #SAFE13 study which exposed sexual harassment experienced by researchers in the field, largely instigated by senior researchers on junior women. Katie notes that it is exhausting for women in STEM to constantly have to tackle these incidents, whether it’s facing yet another round of “does sexism even exist?” or, in this case, yet another prominent scientist oblivious as to why his behaviour contributes to making women feel unwelcome and disrespected.
Katie writes that it’s high time for men to pick up some of the burden of speaking up on these types of incidents:
- What is Sexism & How Does it Work in STEM?
- Overcoming race and gender issues: Candy Torres, a Latina-American Software engineer for the NASA and ISS programs.
- Women in the USA Space Program: