Policy / Science / Science and Communication

Two steps forward and one step back: Philae and #shirtstorm

Yesterday The European Space Agency (ESA) did something really awesome. They landed a probe on a moving comet. Let’s just think about that for a minute. ESA has been running the Rosetta mission for 13 years and it has traveled over 6 billion Km to reach its destination (Comet 67P). This is obviously much more difficult than landing on the moon (smaller object that is moving faster and is farther away). The Philae probe may have had a bit of a bumpy landing, but it still landed on a comet and took some amazing pictures, like the one below.



This in itself is so cool. Now that the probe is on the comet it can do more than take pictures. If they can get the probe to stabilize after a tumultuous landing, it will be able to core the comet and collect samples and data. This is a great step in learning more about comets and the universe as a whole. Naturally, this excitement bubbled over to Twitter, where the likes of Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson praised the mission.

Tyson includes a bit about the fact that NASA was not part of this mission (NASA funding is on the decline due to the decisions of our current congress and elected officials). However, this is not the most controversial thing that happened yesterday. An unfortunate wardrobe decision by a lead scientist on the Rosetta mission is all over twitter. Dr. Matt Taylor decided to brief the press wearing a gaudy shirt covered with scantly clad women. You can follow the turmoil on twitter #shirtstorm, which has gone viral.

The shirt in question:

So, why is this a problem? Is Matt Taylor a sexist jerk? Not necessarily. This is a quote from him: “The people I work with don’t judge me by my looks but only by the work I have done and can do.” That sounds like a guy who is all for equality. It’s probable that this dude was just trying to show the world that scientists are not all stuffy old men in lab coats, so he picked a crazy shirt to wear. The Guardian has a great article about this. The issue is that he is wearing women as an accessory. Something that women, especially women in science and STEM fields, did not take kindly to. If you want to see more example of the struggles women face due to sexism, check out Feminist Frequency on Twitter and YouTube. This video is particularly relevant:

Recently, #gamergate has brought sexism to the forefront on social media outlets. In addition to this, several recent academic publications and articles have been discussing the problems of sexism and discrimination in STEM fields. I am primarily talking about this recent NYT article that states, based on published literature on demographics, that there is not a sexism problem in STEM fields, as well as reactionary posts, such as this, this, and this.  You should read all of this stuff for yourself before you make a decision. I have read tons of articles about this topic recently, and I find myself constantly engaging in conversation about the topic. Inside of my department (Marine Science, mostly female grad students, but nearly entirely male faculty), it is clear that there are some awesome women in STEM and that numbers are increasing, at least on the student side. In fact, I’m helping to organize an outreach event tonight called SciREN and most of the researchers (65%) are women! Here’s the thing though, most of these female researchers are in training. There are tons of female graduate students, lab techs, and even post-docs. But how many of these qualified people are getting good faculty jobs? Now, you can argue that no one is having an easy time landing a faculty job right now, and you would be right. However, if we looked at the data, I’m sure we would see that women are having an especially difficult time with this. Our site has featured this issue twice already, so I don’t feel the need to rehash things. Check out our older posts (here and here) to see more info on women in STEM. There are inherent problems in our society with discrimination and sexism. The fact that we are even able to have this conversation today means we are making strides, but things are by no means perfect. We as a community can do better. As for the shirt in question, I get what Dr. Taylor was trying to do and I don’t think he meant for it to blow up like this, but that just points out unconscious bias. It’s hard to make that go away entirely, but we can work on it. Scientists are not just stuffy old men in lab coats. Sometimes they have tattoos, sometimes they are from different countries, often enough, they are women. What they all have in common is an interest in exploring the unknown and sharing what they learn with the world in order to improve society in someway. In short, we are all people and people are not perfect. We make mistakes and that’s ok. We are here and we should keep trying to make our community welcoming for all who are interested and qualified. So let’s do that.

Edit: One final plug. I think this whole situation shows the importance of presenting ourselves professionally. Especially in front of a global audience. This is a topic for another post, but think before you dress. If you are doing something great, it would be nice to have people take you seriously.

Edit 2: Fixed incorrect quote. Thanks everyone!

Note: I’m heading to Belize to do some field research tomorrow. I will be gone for 2 weeks. You can follow my trip through the blog twitter and instagram accounts (linked in the sidebar). I’ll write about it when I return. Please excuse typos and errors above. I will fix as needed, but I was writing in a rush. I just wanted to get a reaction out there.

2 thoughts on “Two steps forward and one step back: Philae and #shirtstorm

  1. Pingback: Sexism (and racism) in science: How do we make it go away? | UNder the C

  2. Pingback: Sexism (and racism) in science: How do we make it go away? | Justin Baumann, MS

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