As a Man, I Also Care About #ShirtStorm and STEM Sexism

Spurred on by some powerful blog posts by Dr. Zulekya Zevallos in STEM Women and Jess Zimmerman in Dame Magazine (among many other tweets and large blogs), I feel that I should speak up about my own distaste for the incident now known as #ShirtStorm, #ShirtGate, #RosettaShirt, etc.

For those of you who don’t have much social media access and/or live under a rock, the Rosetta mission launched the Philae probe, which landed on a comet (after having been in orbit for 10 years). Great, right? Of course it is — we are making strides in our understanding of icy bodies in our solar system and showcased our ingenuity in engineering and physics. But that wasn’t the only thing it showcased. The Rosetta project’s lead scientist Matt Taylor wore a particularly offensive shirt during the press conference. Many people (mostly women) immediately noticed it and spoke out. Perhaps science writer Rose Eveleth said it best with this tweet:

Subsequently, Matt apologized for offending so many people by his lack of judgment. Twitter trolls took to the internet to condemn those who spoke out against Matt’s poor choice of shirt and to give them the usual death threats and belittling rhetoric seen from Men’s Rights activists (because we white men are soooo oppressed). Feminists, and  have been mainly accused of “bullying” a guy “who landed a probe on a comet” and of being “prudish.”

To start, that accusation is just stupid. Let’s think back to those good old days in 4th grade when some kid said or did something stupid or offensive. Another kid told the teacher (or some authority figure) about the incident, the teacher chastised the first kid about what s/he did wrong and how s/he should change his/her ways and apologize, and the first kid apologizes. Then some insecure third kid charges up to the second kid and threatens them with belittling language and/or hits them for reasons like “I don’t like snitches” or “you’re a poo-face and I don’t like you.” Maybe a whole bunch of other kids join in and pick on the kid whose only problem was s/he spoke up against the initial bad behavior. It’s pretty clear who has bullied who.

Fast forward to this situation — a guy (likely unintentionally) wears a shirt that illustrates why women are uncomfortable in STEM fields and therefore offends. Feminists speak out against said man, said man (being an adult human being with rational thought) gives a likely heartfelt apology on his own accord, and in response, a gaggle of mostly white men who probably are insecure about having small reproductive organs take to twitter to belittle and verbally abuse the feminists who spoke out. Now I ask you, who is the bully in this situation?

Secondly, Matt is not the only person who contributed to landing a probe on a comet (not to mention he’s more the science research-end than the engineers who built the thing), but even if he was, his praiseworthy actions do not excuse poor judgment. Thirdly, just because the shirt was designed and gifted to Matt Taylor by a female friend does not make it any less offensive in this context. As scientists, we all know that context matters. If this dude wants to wear that shirt while lounging around the house or going out to a restaurant, he can do just that. People may think he looks stupid, but that’s his right. I wear plenty of bizarre, eclectic items of clothing, and I stand by that (granted, I try not to wear clothing that objectifies women as sex toys…). However, he wasn’t just loafing around the house — he was giving a press conference about this great scientific achievement, and that calls for professional discretion. In this context, the shirt is merely shouting out to the public, “Look at me! I’m a male scientist who doesn’t care about how women might react to the fact that my shirt is objectifying and would make them feel excluded from this already exclusionary world of STEM!” So yes, this shirt is a problem.

And of course, we accept this kind of judgment of women’s clothing choices every single day. Women on TV, in all contexts, are subject to heavy scrutiny by their male and female viewers alike. Yet the moment a man is called out for making a poor choice in clothing, the internet explodes! Take a moment to let that soak in. While you do, read about a male co-host of a morning show who brilliantly illustrated this by wearing the same suit to work every day, and nobody noticed, while his female co-host is constantly flooded with fashion critiques.

The fact that he has done something awesome and the fact that the shirt was designed and given by a woman doesn’t make this somehow less offensive. This is a classic fallacy that we all make in order to justify stupid things that we say or do. I have a Jewish background, and so despite my Atheism I often feel like it’s “okay” to make jokes about Jewish stereotypes. And yes, maybe that’s okay between close friends who know I don’t seriously mean it. But if I say horrible, offensive things about Jews in a bad context to many, many people, that’s still a problem, no matter how “Jewish” I may be.

Why is this such a big deal? Well, the kind of sexist behavior and rhetoric present in #shirtstorm is rampant in STEM, despite what an incredibly flawed study seemed to imply (a good rebuttal to that found here). And most of this is unconscious — both men and women engage unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally as well, of course) in sexist behaviors and/or forming sexist judgments against their female colleagues. And in most cases, men are either unwilling to accept that this is the case or are silent and let their female colleagues make all the noise. We too need to speak up and challenge our friends and colleagues when they say or do stupid and/or sexist things. This isn’t about the shirt or Matt Taylor anymore. It’s about systematic sexism that excludes women and makes it harder to achieve true diversity in STEM.

Generally, women who speak out against misogyny are subject to hostile responses. Gamers such as Anita Sarkeesian and Felicia Day have faced severe harassment throughout GamerGate, surrounding the treatment of women in gaming; Sarkeesian cancelled a public appearance at Utah State University after the college received a mass-shooting threat. Meanwhile, men like Wil Wheaton who publicly speak out against sexism in the same way do not face death threats or mass harassment. There is little risk for men to address sexism in any field, which is just one more reason to add our voices to the conversation. We need to show our colleagues, male and female, that we stand against this blatant misogyny and that this kind of abuse should not be tolerated.

This post may not be the most eloquent or well-thought out in its presentation, but I feel the need as a man to join in the conversation and speak out against #shirtstorm. Even though Matt apologized and hopefully learned his lesson, this doesn’t mean the conversation should stop. It’s only just begun, and as men, we need to take part in it, as supporters of and avid learners from our female colleagues.

And man, that is one ugly shirt.

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