The Rosetta mission #shirtstorm was never just about that shirt.

Last week, the European Space Agency’s Spacecraft Rosetta put a washing machine-sized lander named Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Landing anything on a comet is a pretty amazing feat, so plenty of scientists and science-fans were glued to their computers watching for reports of the Rosetta mission’s progress. During the course of the interviews streamed to the public (including classrooms), Project Scientist Matt Taylor described the mission as the “sexiest mission there’s ever been”, but not “easy”. And, he conducted on-camera interviews in a colorful shirt patterned with pin-up images of scantily-clad women.

This shirt was noticed, and commented upon, by more than one woman in science and science communication.

To some viewers, Taylor’s shirt just read as a departure from the “boring” buttoned-down image the public might associate with scientists. But to many women scientists and science communicators who commented upon it, the shirt seemed to convey lack of awareness or concern with the experiences of women who have had colleagues, supervisors, teachers, students treat them as less than real scientists, or science students, or science communicators, or science fans. It was jarring given all the subtle and not so subtle ways that some men (not all men) in science have conveyed to us that our primary value lies in being decorative or titillating, not in being capable, creative people with intelligence and skills who can make meaningful contributions to building scientific knowledge or communicating science to a wider audience.

The pin-up images of scantily clad women on the shirt Taylor wore on camera distracted people who were tuned in because they wanted to celebrate Rosetta. It jarred them, reminding them of the ways science can still be a boys’ club.

It was just one scientist, wearing just one shirt, but it was a token of a type that is far too common for many of us to ignore.

There is research on the ways that objectifying messages and images can have a significant negative effect on those in the group being objectified. Objectification, even if it’s unintentional, adds one more barrier (on top of implicit bias, stereotype threat, chilly climate, benevolent sexism, and outright harassment) on women’s participation.

Even if there wasn’t a significant body of research demonstrating that the effects are real, the fact of women who explicitly say that casual use of sexualizing imagery or language in professional contexts makes science less welcoming for them ought to count for more than an untested hunch that it shouldn’t make them feel this way.

And here’s the thing: this is a relatively easy barrier to remove. All it requires is thinking about whether your cheeky shirt, your wall calendar, your joke, is likely to have a negative effect on other people — including on women who are likely to have accumulated lots of indications that they are not welcomed in the scientific community on the same terms.

When Matt Taylor got feedback about the message his shirt was sending to some in his intended audience, he got it, and apologized unreservedly.

But the criticism was never just about just one shirt, and what has been happening since Matt Taylor’s apology underlines that this is not a problem that starts and ends with Matt Taylor or with one bad wardrobe choice for the professional task at hand.

Despite Matt Taylor’s apology, legions of people have been asserting that he should not have apologized. They have been insisting that people objecting to his wearing that shirt while representing Rosetta and acting as an ambassador for science were wrong to voice their objections, wrong even to be affected by the shirt.

If only we could not be affected by things simply by choosing not to be affected by them. But that’s not how symbols work.

A critique of this wardrobe choice as one small piece of a scientific culture that makes it harder for women to participate fully brought forth throngs of people (including scientists) responding with a torrent of hostility and, in some cases, threats of harm. This response conveys that women are welcome in science, or science journalism, or the audience for landing a spacecraft on a comet, only as long as they shut up about any of the barriers they might encounter, while men in science should never, ever be made uncomfortable about choices they’ve made that might contribute (even unintentionally) to throwing up such barriers.

That is not a great strategy for demonstrating that science is welcoming to all.

Indeed, it’s a strategy that seems to imbed a bunch of assumptions:

  • that it’s worth losing the scientific talent of women who might make the scientific climate uncomfortable for men by describing their experiences and pointing out barriers that are relatively easy to fix;
  • that men who have to be tough enough to test their hypotheses against empirical data and to withstand the rigors of peer review are not tough enough to handle it when women in their professional circle express discomfort;
  • that these men of science are incapable of empathy for others (including women) in their professional circle.

These strike me as bad assumptions. People making them seem to have a worse opinion of men who do science that the women voicing critiques have.

Voicing a critique (and sometimes steps it would be good to take going forward), rather that sighing and regarding the thing you’re critiquing as the cost of doing business, is something you do when you believe the person hearing it would want to know about the problem and address it. It comes from a place of trust — that your male colleagues aren’t trying to exclude you, and so will make little adjustments to stop doing unintentional harm once that they know that they’re doing it.

Matt Taylor seemed to understand the critique at least well enough to change his shirt and apologize for the unintentional harm he did. He seems willing to make that small effort to make science welcoming, rather than alienating.

Now we’re just waiting for the rest of the scientific community to join him.

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