Why women in science are annoyed at Rosetta mission scientist’s clothing
Alice Bell: ESA can land their robot on a comet. But they still can’t see misogyny under their noses.
This morning, when Dr Matt Taylor briefed the press on the Rosetta mission, he wore a very plain black T-shirt. Yesterday, he wore something more colourful.
As the Independent reported, “the public marveled over his ‘cool’ attitude. Not since Brian Cox rocked up with a Beatle haircut and soft northern vowels has a scientist become trended so suddenly over such a short period.” It follows a spate of press on this “geezer scientist” who seems like a charming and appealing break from images of labcoats.
Except not everyone was so pleased at Taylor’s style. As the Guardian Fashion desk soon noticed, the shirt’s print was of PVC-clad women. Many people found that sexist, reflecting a culture still present in all too many parts of science and engineering, where women are made to feel uncomfortable.
In some ways, responses to Taylor’s shirt are a refreshing change from the over-emphasis placed on women’s clothing. It’s a sad media cliche that profiles of female researchers seem to focus on the length of the skirt, not the science. Except Taylor’s a man. It’s different. Whereas women’s clothes are too-often noticed, this facet of a man at work gets to be invisible.
Not only did Taylor not ask himself whether it was appropriate, none of his colleagues seemed to either (or if they did, they were ignored). If the press noticed it, they largely saw it as a good thing. When science writer Ed Yong expressed his discomfort at this shirt, another journalist replied: “Don’t be such a misery guts. Matt’s a legend!”
Taylor recently joined an online chat with the Wall Street Journal. In response to a question over how he was accepted in science with his tattoos with: “The people I work with don’t judge me by my looks but only by the work I have done and can do. Simple.” As a post at Business Insider dryly noted “If only women could hope to someday be judged that way too.”
It’s not just what he wore either, his language stunk of a casual sexism too. Watch the video in the Mail’s version of this “British scientist taking Twitter by storm” story, and you can hear Taylor refer to the Rosetta mission as “the sexiest mission there’s ever been. She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy.”
All of this raises multiple questions, not least why people in science aren’t routinely trained to be more aware of such issues. This goes for Taylor, but also the multiple staff around him, including my colleagues in the science press.
The need for training goes for other issues too, it’s not just gender scientists are allowed to be clueless about. UCL recently ran a discussion on the history of eugenics research conducted there. As a speaker in the excellent Q&A which followed pointed out, for all the great world leading research at UCL, their eminent scholars are not trained to think critically about race. It’s true of all the departments, but especially in the natural sciences. We need a broader pedagogical movement in science, or we’ll continue to be so blinkered.
ESA can land their robot on a comet. A comet! It’s amazing. But they still can’t see misogyny under their noses. It’s painfully ridiculous. Pointing this out is not a distraction to the science. It’s part of it. It’s time science finally realised that.
But to end of a positive note, go watch Professor Monica Grady’s delight at the finding out Philae had landed. Because her expressions of joy are worth a trillion garish shirts. And if we really want to change images of scientists in the media, that’s what we should be celebrating.