So I got involved in a bit of a discussion on my Facebook page this morning about scientist Matt Taylor’s rather unfortunate hawaiian shirt. If you haven’t been following the story, the Rosetta space probe made a historic rendezvous with comet 67P and successfully deployed the mission’s Philae lander on the comet’s surface. This was a triumph of science and engineering — more than a decade in the making — for humanity, or space exploration, and for the European Space Agency. And during an interview about that triumph, Dr. Matt Taylor, mission scientist, was filmed wearing his “lucky” hawaiian shirt, which featured images of scantily-clad cartoon women in pin-up poses.
So… that became an issue pretty quickly. People were offended, people were offended that other people were offended, and there was frothing at all corners of the internet. Eventually Taylor apologized — publicly and very sincerely — and the press were able to focus on the groundbreaking aspects of this remarkable mission.
This morning I reposted an excellent piece from the blog of Greta Christina, a pornographer and sex-positivity activist, on the reaction to the casual sexism of Taylor’s shirt and why it wasn’t OK. I shared this particular article because it presents a rather well-thought-out and readable reaction to the situation.
The comments on my Facebook page quickly became a microcosm of the internet’s reaction. Chief among the comments was the complaint — and it’s a valid complaint — that “it’s just a shirt.” And you know what? I understand that reaction. It’s an understandable reaction: A monumental accomplishment for science has just occurred; why the fuck are we yelling about the guy’s shirt?
But here’s the thing: It’s not “just a shirt”.
Aside from being grossly inappropriate, extremely unprofessional, and a public embarrassment to the European Space Agency (any or all of which would justify being fired in any professional environment in the world), the message being sent is that space scientist and engineer Dr. Matt Taylor, at the triumphant peak of his career, is comfortable and confident displaying casual sexism… with troubling implications about the professional culture of the European Space Agency.
He might not have intended to send that message, but that’s the message he sent. Taylor’s bad judgement (and the failure of any of his colleagues to confront him on it) has created a situation where one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 21st century has been eclipsed in the public view. That’s a shame. But it’s a shame that reflects on Taylor, not the people who he’s offended.
A couple of the people who weighed in referred to Taylor’s decision to wear that particular shirt as a “poor fashion choice” and opined that he didn’t mean to be sexist. One of my friends commented that it was troubling “that poor fashion choice automatically equates to casual sexism.”
Well, no: Casual sexism equates to casual sexism. The wearing of a gaudy hawaiian shirt is definitely a poor fashion choice (apparently many of the mission’s crew wore them for “luck” during the Philae landing, an entirely acceptable bit of morale-building on the team) but the wearing of a gaudy hawaiian shirt featuring half-naked women is what makes it sexist. I’m sure Taylor didn’t leave his house in the morning with the thought “How can I send a message of casual sexism to the world?” but sending such a message is exactly what he accomplished. He should have looked at that t-shirt and realized it was inappropriate and unprofessional. The fact that he didn’t — that it didn’t even occur to him that there might be an issue with how he presented himself to the global media — speaks volumes.
If I’d been an administrator at the ESA, in our moment of triumph after years — decades! — and billions of dollars of effort, with the eyes of the world focussed squarely on the agency and one of my senior scientists showed up on camera wearing that shirt, the words which would spring instantly to my mind would be “Grounds for Termination” because you can’t discredit your employer like that and expect to keep your job.
I’ve seen Taylor’s apology and I think it was sincere. I feel for the guy; at the high point of his life he got blindsided by condemnation for what seems to be a trivial thing. Did he deserve the avalanche of shit that got dumped on him? Maybe not. Clearly he was shocked and upset by it, and genuinely remorseful.
But a culture of sexism and the objectification of women is not a trivial thing… and the world just got an eyeful of how that culture is accepted in the European Space Agency.
The ESA hasn’t fired Dr. Taylor and I’m glad they haven’t. To quote John Hodgeman: “Sometimes talented people make dumb mistakes.” Taylor made one hell of a dumb mistake, however inadvertently, and was obviously contrite about it. One hopes that he takes this experience and learns from it.
But we need to learn from it too, and we need to take the right lesson from it: You can either treat women as objects or as equals, but not both. And it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to treat women as objects.
A lot of words on the internet have been spent on claiming how Taylor did nothing wrong, or how it was wrong that “feminists” jumped on him for an innocent mistake, or how people should “get over it.” I don’t care if a female artist made the shirt, or if the shirt was a gift, or whatever, because, however inadvertently, Taylor clearly did do something wrong: He told women and girls all over the world that there is no place for them as professional scientists. He told them that they are not his equals.
Think of it: You’re a 13- or 14-year-old girl, you want to be a scientist, and a space scientist at that. So you watch the news and the social media coverage of the Philae landing, which is unquestionably one of the greatest (and most well-covered) scientific achievements of our age. And when you do, you see that there are no women in the control room. The only female faces are the moderator (who had to call someone out for flirting with her) and a punch of half-naked pinup girls on somebody’s shirt. What message, as a young woman, are you receiving from that? That you don’t have a place in science… or worse, that your place is decorative, as an object for the male scientists’ gaze?
When it comes to casual sexism, I’m not perfect. As a man, I’ve been guilty of it in the past — and far more than just once. What generally happens is that I’ve done something unthinking, seemingly innocuous, and without any ill-intent… and then had women confront me about it. It always blindsides me, and I feel shame and embarrassment because of my mistake, because I’m trying to be a good man. If I wasn’t, it wouldn’t be humiliating when I fuck up.
That is exactly what I saw on Taylor’s face when we broke down in tears during his apology, and because of that I’m more than happy to give him the benefit of the doubt: Bearing in mind his obvious shame and contrition for his action, and I’m going to state that it’s clear Dr. Matt Taylor didn’t mean to do what he did. He seems to be a genuinely good man who got caught out by an unconscious culture of sexism and inequality. Professional science, especially the space sciences, is still very much a good ole boys’ club. That culture is changing, but slowly; in a lot of ways the sciences are changing more slowly than society at large. Dr. Taylor’s mistake — and the backlash from it — may hopefully cause professional scientists to realize that the bad old days of casual sexism must come to an end, because an environment were women are regarded — and treated — as professional equals can only be regarded as a step in the right direction.