Thursday, November 20, 2014

It's Not About That Damn Shirt

The following was submitted to the Women in Astronomy Blog by a female astronomer who wishes to use the pseudonym Kerri Benjamin.

The next sentence is the most important thing in this whole post:  

I am posting this under a pseudonym because I am afraid to post it on my own blog or Twitter.

I am afraid. 

The snafu known as ShirtGate or ShirtStorm is complicated, nuanced, and exhausting. 

The below is not comprehensive. I'm going to talk about the things I consider to be the most important or most misunderstood. I'm doing bullet points because I am too damn tired to make this narratively pretty. And I don't mean physically exhausted. I am tired of THIS. THIS is sexism, in the world, in science, and on the Internet. 

It's not about the shirt (or Dr. Taylor)

Dr. Taylor has apologized, and I'm choosing to believe he was sincere. This conversation is not about him, but I wanted to cover a few things: 
  • "He" did not land on a comet. He was part of a vast, international team of scientists and engineers who worked together for decades to make this mission happen. Philae is not "his" accomplishment. 
  • Doing smart or cool things in no way prevents you from being an idiot. Nor does it protect you from the consequences of being an idiot. 
  • That shirt was inappropriate. Period. End of story. I don't care what you wear to work, what that woman you work with said, or anything like that. He was going on global TV to talk about history-making science. I don't know how you show up for work that day wearing anything but a mission t-shirt or a suit and tie. 
  • Being a scientist or a "geek" does not excuse it. I have one coworker who regularly comes to the office in plaid shorts and another who is wearing a superhero logo three days out of five. They still both know what professionalism demands. This is not beyond "scientist" comprehension. 
  • The female scientists bringing this up have just as cool things on their CVs. The people who he insulted were, first and foremost, his colleagues. And we're not impressed with him just for being on a mission team.

Sexism in STEM

There is a problem with sexism in the scientific community, just as there is in many communities. I have been relatively fortunate in the men I have worked with and for, but I have a LONG list of friends and acquaintances who are not so lucky. The shirt might seem to be "not a big deal", but our world is the sum total of every "not a big deal". 

It's "not a big deal" when someone tells you he came to your talk because you're attractive. 
It's "not a big deal" when a coworker comments on your appearance.
It's "not a big deal" when someone makes a "joke" at work demeaning women.
It's "not a big deal" when you are asked in a job interview if you have or are planning to have kids. 
It's "not a big deal" that you were warned about what professor to avoid basically as soon as you got to school.
It's "not a big deal" that that same professor was untouchable by the administration because he was too famous.
It's "not a big deal" when someone assumes you are your own secretary on the phone.
It's "not a big deal" when someone calls you "Miss" and your male colleague "Doctor."
It's "not a big deal" when going to parties at a conference comes with warnings of which of your fellow scientists are dangerous.
It's "not a big deal" when your boss, adviser, or senior colleague asks you out.

All of these things have happened to me or to someone I know. Not a single one of them is OK. People have excused each one individually as "not a big deal." But the reality of living as a woman in STEM (or in general) is that these things happen every single day. You may never encounter some of the most egregious offenses yourself, but you will know someone who does. And women do not - and should not - accept that as an ok way for the world to be.  

"Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them." - Margaret Atwood
Guys: if you have not heard, or sat down and really thought about the above quote, do so now. It is absolutely true. 

This is where we circle back to my being afraid. I'm not talking about concern for my career or my reputation. People - particularly women - are being abused and threatened with violence over this. 

Pointing out sexism almost always comes with some type of blowback, but this shirt debacle has been made exponentially worse by coming on the heals of another one known as GamerGate. In brief:

GamerGate purports to be about journalistic ethics and/or defending "gamer" culture, depending on which apologist you are listening too. In reality, it has been a months-long assault on female, queer, and feminist voices in or around the video game community. Women have been driven into hiding after receiving death threats. One woman was threatened with "the worst school shooting in history" if she didn't cancel a speaking engagement. People who oppose GamerGate have their personal and financial details hacked and posted publicly on the internet. Rape threats, spamming "targets" with child pornography, encouraging them to commit suicide, staging virtual attacks on employers to try and get people fired. These are the tactics of GamerGate. And their goal is to silence women. 

What does this have to do with the damn shirt? Since the worst of their threats got mainstream media attention, I would say the GamerGate "army" of abusers and criminals was losing a bit of steam. The non-misogynistic members of the game community (who are many in number) finally found their spines and started standing against them, and then ignoring them. So when "another example" of "feminazis" "oppressing" a man appeared before them, they latched on with gusto. 

Female scientists started getting the same treatment as female video game developers. Rape threats. Death threats. Organized, constant online abuse. Not all of this comes from "Gaters", and not all of the "Gaters" are involved, but there is significant overlap in the people - and the behavior is nearly identical.

This is worse for women who are more high-profile, obviously, but it's not limited to them. A female scientist ran an experiment this week: She has less than two dozen Twitter followers. She is almost never online, and is not "famous" in any sense of the word. She posted a tweet expressing support for the women being threatened, using the hashtags #ShirtStorm and #ShirtGate, to see how long it would take the "GamerGate" guys to start in on her. 

Women said "Dude, wearing that shirt is not cool". Men are now spending days telling those women the graphic, specific ways they would like to rape and murder them. 

The Internet is Real

OK, final point. Do not tell me that "it's just the internet". The internet is an increasingly important part of how we live our lives. 

Every single person on the internet is a PERSON. I expect to be treated with respect in the real world, and I expect to be treated that way in the virtual one. That should not be too high a bar. The people who are threatening my friends are not "trolls". They are people, often (but not exclusively) grown men who think these are OK things to say to a woman. 

The Silver Lining

People are capable of learning. People have the right to change their minds. Sometimes discrimination is out of malice, but it's also often out of ignorance or thoughtlessness. People LEARN - and when they do, they are allowed to say "Wow, I was a complete and utter idiot about [X], sorry about that." That's called progress. Hopefully we've made some of it this week.