Friday, November 14, 2014

Astronomical Sexism: Rosetta #ShirtStorm and Everyday Sexism in STEM

This post was originally published by STEM Women.

The world has been abuzz with news that the Rosetta spacecraft landed on a comet 500 million kilometres from Earth, in an attempt to collect vital data about the origins of our solar system. The aim is to benefit humanity. Unfortunately, this event is also marred for women in STEM and our allies due to the pervasive power of sexism. Rosetta Project scientist Matt Taylor chose to wear a shirt with semi-nude women, effectively telling the world and our next generation of STEM workers that sexism is still very much part of our professional culture.

By the way, this is not the first time he’s publicly worn this shirt. He tweeted that he received the shirt as a present in early October and none of his 2,700 followers on Twitter paid attention. Most worrying is that he is photographed in an office – which suggests he may have worn this shirt to work and none of his management nor colleagues pointed out the inappropriate attire.

This comes only a couple of weeks since The New York Times declared that sexism in academia is dead (as we noted, this claim was based on a highly flawed study). What this wardrobe choice says is that some male scientists in strategic positions for major science organisations do not see equality as a serious issue. Taylor works for the European Space Agency and he is prominently featured on a NASA website.

Sartorial Sexism

Some people may see Taylor’s dress as harmless or eccentric. For example, the UK newspaper, the Daily Mail, basically calls Taylor a rockstar, highlighting public comments on his tattoos and his “wild dress sense.” Erin Brodwin, journalist with The Business Insider science column, however, was not having any of that nonsense. Brodwin focused solely on the issue of sexism, noting that Taylor had recently answered questions on his acceptance as a scientist despite his tattoos. Taylor said then: “The people I work with don’t judge me by my looks but only by the work I have done and can do. Simple.” Brodwin notes with irony: “If only women could hope to someday be judged that way too.”

Analytical Chemist Dr Raychelle Burks noted that a prominent scientist appearing before the world’s media might have chosen a different shirt to make a statement about STEM. If he wanted to appear with a woman on his shirt, why not try Ada Lovelace? Or any other prominent woman in astronomy and astrophysics whose fight for inclusion reshaped space history? Instead of celebrating STEM at this momentous event, women are reminded of our objectification and exclusion.

This matters on many levels: it matters because of the uphill battle we face in STEM fields trying to get everyone to understand that sexism in STEM is an issue that affects us all. It matters because girls are continually told that STEM is not for them. It matters because people want to find excuses for the under-representation of girls and women, rather than focusing on solutions.

Some people on social media are under-playing this incident, telling women scientists to stop spoiling the achievement with feminist discussions. One woman tweets at astronomy Professor Jennifer Hoffman, "We've officially all become prudes." Another man accuses feminism for bumming out a momentous feat. Professor Hoffman argues this is not about prudishness, it's about professional respect of women colleagues:

The reason why some people are under-playing the significance of Taylor’s choice of shirt goes to the heart of the way in which sexism works. Sexism is not simply maintained through active harassment and discrimination. It thrives because of deeply held values that go unexamined.

On our blog post, we pay special attention to how men can help reduce the burden on women in STEM, by actively challenging sexism in professional settings. This includes calling out the lack of awareness and bias of colleagues which objectify, denigrate and otherwise make women feel excluded from science. Sexism is more than insults and physical harassment. Sexism describes the culture, organisational patterns and other practices that perpetuate inequality. The things that we say and do, whether conscious or otherwise, are connected to broader patterns of gender inequality. This is known as everyday sexism - the types of social interaction that reinforce women's lesser status at work and in wider society. This #ShirtStorm incident allows us to see how everyday actions are connected to institutional sexism; that is, the organisational and policy barriers that women face throughout their education and careers. To learn more about how this incident helps us to better understand both everyday and institutional sexism in STEM, and how you and your organisation can help address the exclusion of women, keep reading on the Stem Women website.


  1. Thank you for your measured and objective consideration of a silly but disturbing faux pas by an apparently culturally oblivious European scientist of stature. I wish others could see this for what it is without the hysteria. Our culture has become all too prone to over-reaction. Still, as a retired female scientist, I'm glad the point is being made.

  2. Sexism should not be a thing anymore it is 2014. Women are just as smart as men and should be treated the same way especially in this scientific work place.