Project Scientist from Comet Landing Steals the Show with Sexism

UPDATE (Nov 16): I have received a number of hateful messages via twitter, instagram, this blog, and directly to my email about this post. I have been accused of being too sensitive about this shirt and bullying a great scientist who achieved a great thing.  Here is a short summary of my final thoughts on this issue:

  1. Great people who do great things also make mistakes. These mistakes don't make them terrible people, or somehow erase the great things that they did.  But just because they are great, doesn't mean we ignore their mistakes.
  2. "Freedom of expression" has limitations in the workplace.
  3. Just because a female made the shirt, does not make said shirt unoffensive to all women.
  4. Yes, there are bigger problems in life than this. However, we can address many different issues with varying levels of urgency at the same time.  Life is not zero sum game.
  5. I'm allowed to have an opinion on this issue.

UPDATE (Nov 14): The project scientist, Matt Taylor, made a sincere, heartfelt apology today on this subject.  The video of that apology is below.  This is a reminder that it is important to bring issues like this to light because it is very likely that those creating the problem are unaware that it was a problem at all.

Yesterday, while everyone was staring at Kim Kardashian’s butt, humans accomplished something that has never been done before. The European Space Agency successfully rendezvoused a spacecraft on a comet.  While this amazing feat should have been the center of attention, one scientist’s sexist wardrobe choice stole the show.

A project scientist for the mission, Matt Taylor who was interviewed on the live webcast, decided to sport a provocative shirt covered with women in barely-there clothes. This naturally sparked some controversy online.

The comet landing was one of the most highly publicized science missions in recent history, garnering nearly 200,000 tweets per hour on the topic. The Rosetta team was well aware of the level of publicity that would surround the final moment of rendezvous that culminated the ten-year mission. This means that the sexist shirt was a conscious choice made by the Rosetta project scientist, who has arguably been the most public face of the mission.

There were some spectators, including women, who argued that this #ShirtGate was unnecessary and distracting. They said that if women are put off by his shirt, then they weren’t interested in science in the first place.

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Comments like these prove that sexism continues to be perpetuated, by both men and women, in scientific fields. A recent study showed that women are 45 percent more likely than their male peers to leave Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields within one year. A natural interest in science alone cannot keep women in this field.  In fact, of those women surveyed in the study, 80 percent said they loved their work.  

One of the main factors that contribute to women leaving STEM is a “sense of isolation.” In male dominated fields, like science, it’s not hard to feel like you are part of frat-like boys club. While many companies are taking steps to address this, it only takes a prominent scientist in a shirt with half-naked women to remind us that we have a long way to go.

Matt Taylor’s shirt distracted from the great success of the many men and women on the Rosetta team, but it pointed to a larger issue of female isolation in STEM fields. Will Matt Taylor reach the internet fame he was likely seeking? Probably, but not in the way he would have liked.

 

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