Confronting Structural Sexism in #STEM: Pt 2

Because everyone who writes science blogs has written about this in the last few weeks, I'm joining the pack to give my 2 cents worth about the online attacks against those women in STEM who commented on the shirt worn by Dr. Matt Taylor of the ESA Rosetta Mission, while he was explaining the Philae probe's landing on a comet. These women (and many men) said that the shirt, covered in nearly naked Barbarella-like babes, was neither appropriate, nor projected a welcoming atmosphere to women in STEM in Dr. Taylor's working world.

Many blogs by both men and women have unpacked the "ThatShirt" anti-feminist hysteria, which included death threats (!) against the women scientists and science journalists who made #shirtgate and #shortstorm comments. The Royal Astronomical Society issued a statement on the topic. I have linked to two of the many posts by men. These blogs call out the attacks on people who commented on the shirt, for what they mostly are: namely, some solid nastiness from horrible people and agents provocateur who believe that they can get away with this sort of thing, without being held accountable.

Setting those threats and attacks aside, there were also other comments, including some from the young woman, Elly Prizeman, who made the offending shirt. Ms. Prizeman wrote that she was very proud that Dr. Taylor wore her garment on international TV. Knowing how to sew and knit myself, I greatly admire people, including my mother, who can tailor and sew clothes of high enough quality to be seen in public (this does not include my dressmaking efforts). I think it's wonderful that Ms. Prizeman gives hand-made gifts (I'd love to receive any of her work), but in actuality, she's kind of missing the point of the larger context. 

2014-10-22 10.11.26Choice of clothing is more often than not political. Dress codes have long been a tool for suppressing women. Just read about the rational dress movement. Another extreme example is tartan (that's me in Antigonish with StFX  Biology prof., Corey Bishop). I really hope that Ms. Prizeman and others, who presented the "we're women and this shirt doesn't offend us", might take the time to listen to this lecture by Prof. Ruthann Robson about the legal and political implications of clothes in the USA.  The Slutwalk movement stems from the notion of a woman's right to control her appearance. Now Elly Zupko has launched a Kickstarter campaign to put women scientists faces all over shirts (I just noticed that the 2 Elly's & myself all have zeds in our surname. I notice zeds). 

I don't believe that we should judge people on their appearance. As long as they can get the job done and they choose to wear safe and functional gear for the work or situation, I'm pretty oblivious to appearance (Note to all teenagers: a hood is not a hat and when it's really cold, you need a hat). I don't waste time ironing clothes, hate wearing pantyhose and I'm anti-make-up for all kinds of environmental health reasons (though it always pays to moisturize, right Dr. Who fans?). 

But, the bottom line is that those of us who have attained some societal influence and leadership credentials MUST pay some attention to cultural norms, especially if we are interested in shifting those that produce sexism and racism. This is why I do NOT wear pyjamas to give lectures, even though I'd like to. Dr. Taylor's shirt was inappropriate workplace attire on that day. Also, Dr. Taylor really should not be wearing that shirt at his workplace because of the (unintended) messages that it may send to other people. Sure, wear it while partying with close friends: I'm ok with that, partly because ecologists commit far worse fashion crimes. 

The fact that some women scientists are afraid to post blogs about the shirtgate issue and sexism in STEM in general under their own names shows that there is more work to be done. For people wanting to read more about this, here's a Storify of various tweets pertaining to the Matt Taylor shirt.