In case you missed it, there's big news in the science nerd world: The Philae probe landed on a comet to check out the surface (very official science term), which is a big victory for research. Astrophysicists and people who are in love with space alike rejoiced, even with the problems at landing, and, as has become traditional, the European Space Agency ran a livefeed during deployment so people could follow along. Thanks, Internet, for facilitating every nerdy dream.
But there was a problem, and it wasn't just with the grappling hooks. One researcher on the feed, Matt Taylor, thought it would be supercool to wear a shirt covered in pictures of women wearing lingerie (there were so many better choices!). The shirt popped up across the feed and promotional Twitter before almost immediately disappearing (Matt quickly changed into an ESA shirt) in response to outrage from the science community.
How bad was it? Well. Funny you should ask, because oodles of people excited about seeing the landing logged on and were slapped in the face with it almost immediately.
The people who were upset by it weren't just those silly oversensitive feminists who can't take a joke. Scientists from all perspectives were unimpressed with the shirt, both on professional grounds and gendered ones. The fact that a scientist of any gender, but especially a man, would think it's a good idea to wear a shirt covered in naked women while representing a major space agency and a significant research project is appalling; and clearly, he had no idea that he was engaging in exactly the kind of casual sexism that drives women away from STEM.
Look, even dudes thought it was inappropriate. Which it was. Astronomer Katie Mack, who is outspoken about women in STEM and unafraid to speak hard truths, really led the charge in this case, engaging the science community and asking why the ESA and Taylor thought the shirt would be a good idea.
The frustrating thing about the shirt, beyond the obvious sexism and how upsetting it was to see a thing like that when you were just trying to watch a really cool science thing (also a technical term), was that it illustrated why STEM continues to be so hostile to women, and why so many women are not enthused about entering careers in STEM. We ask why more women don't want to become astrophysicists, or mathematicians, or bench researchers, and, well, this is one example of why. Because apparently, it's totally cool to engage in casual performances of sexism, and, yes, plenty of dudes will ride happily to your defense when you do (more about that in a minute).
It's a shirt, you say, but it's a lot more than that. It's about creating an environment where a lot of women might feel uncomfortable, and, honestly, some men as well:
When you tell women that they're objects, it's a pretty big turnoff. And wearing a shirt covered in naked women is a pretty classic example of objectification. It doesn't really matter if you're "not that kind of guy" or you "totally respect women" or if you were wearing it as some kind of joke. It hurts the women in your workplace, and, in this case, it reflects poorly on the scientific community as a whole.
How many little girls and young women with an interest in STEM logged onto this broadcast this morning, excited to see a historic moment, only to be greeted with this shirt? How many of them started to rethink their interest, given this and the other thousands of incidents involving sexism in STEM, large and small? This isn't about a single shirt and what happened when a man wore it, but about a much larger picture.
The ESA didn't think to ask him to change before appearing on a live feed; not a single PR person or even colleague pulled him aside to suggest that perhaps the shirt wouldn't be the best show of professionalism or representation of the science community. That right there tells you a great deal about how women are treated in STEM. Even as individuals like Mack and hordes of scientists of all genders fight for gender equality and resist sexism, there are scads of people like Taylor and the people filling that livefeed who think casual sexism is okay.
Sexism may be "unintentional," but unconscious sexism is still sexism, and it reflects embedded ideas about women and their role in society. It doesn't matter if Taylor didn't mean to be sexist, or would be genuinely surprised to learn that many people were unsettled and upset by his shirt. He decided to buy it in the first place, he decided to pull it out of his wardrobe, and he even promoted it on his Twitter feed, though, intriguingly, the promotional Tweet disappeared as I was writing this post.
You can try to delete your past, but the Internet remembers, and the word was already out. Naturally, of course, men came to stan for Taylor:
Oh, well. Not that kind of guy. Carry on then.
Oversensitive! Stop reading so much into things!
It's cultural! Why are you so disrespectful of other people's culture!
He probably felt bad about it (which is why he mysteriously deleted all records), so cut him a break!
What's wrong with naked ladies? Don't you like naked women?!
Something cool still happened in science today, and ultimately, this research is going to outweigh the horrific sartorial decisions made during deployment. That doesn't mean that the shirt wasn't important, though. It was just a small example of the microaggressions women in STEM experience, but it highlighted a much larger issue: Casual sexism persists, and as long as it does, it's going to make women think twice about entering, and fully engaging in, STEM.