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Sometimes A Shirt Isn’t Just A Shirt

Re-posted from Completely Out of My Mind by ASP Executive Director Linda Shore.

Original posting date: November 23, 2014

Sometimes a shirt also becomes an opportunity to have an honest look at the gender inequities that still exist in science.

Of course, I am talking about the unfortunate fashion choice made by Dr. Matt Taylor, Project Scientist, of the Rosetta Mission who appeared on a live internet stream donning a shirt featuring very buxom women in highly seductive poses.

Here it is in case you live under a rock on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and missed it:

(NBC News)

After Dr. Taylor’s shirt ignited a firestorm of indignation, the British scientist did apologize for wearing it. It had been a birthday gift from a woman who is an artist and friend of Taylor’s. I don’t believe Taylor intended to insult hundreds of thousands of women, but wearing this shirt to publicly discuss one of the most significant achievements in aerospace engineering was thoughtless. Taylor’s own sister apparently described him to the British press as “brilliant, but lacking common sense.”

In the “shirt storm” that resulted, many (mostly men) declared that “feminists” were grossly over-reacting to what was just “cartoon images” printed on fabric. What harm can a few illustrations do to anyone? Sadly, a lot of harm.

I am a woman, a feminist, and 55 years old. I was a college student studying astronomy during the decade following the Women’s Rights Movement and I certainly experienced my share of sexism. When I attended professional science conferences, I could count the number of women scientists on one hand. I always felt out of place. Yet I was determined not to let the lack of role models defeat me. I felt that if I gave up on a career in science, there would be one less woman to be a role model for the next generation.

Eventually, I got a doctorate in science education largely because I wanted to understand how gender inequities in science might be addressed much earlier in a girl’s life. What I learned – and what most people know – is that images are immensely powerful in shaping a girl’s perception of herself. Young girls are bombarded with media messages all the time telling them that appearance is more important than intelligence; they are told that the size of their breasts is far more valuable to society than the size of their brains.

I am personally grateful that Dr. Taylor acknowledged the inappropriateness of his shirt and apologized. I hope he will also find a way to apologize to impressionable young girls who watched the press conference because of their interest in science, saw the images on his shirt, and now question whether there is a place for them in astronomy.

Truthfully, as scientists we ALL bear a responsibility to ensure our actions don’t inadvertently imply there are barriers to engaging in science based on gender, gender preference, physical ability, age, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or beliefs. Each of us wears a “shirt” of some kind that sadly is not as obvious as the one Dr. Taylor wore. It’s up to all of us to look hard in the mirror every morning and make sure we aren’t leaving the house dressed inappropriately.

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