So about That Shirt…

I’ve been looking forward to the Rosetta Landing for quite some time. Sure, not as long as many who have worked on the project, but I had been following the news since the comet encounter, getting ready with my cohost to do a special comet-themed episode of our educational hangout, Learning Space, and generally watching Twitter and livestreams with anticipation as the moment of landing approached, even when I couldn’t sleep. And now I have a bad taste in my mouth, but it’s not just because of a shirt.

A small side conversation began during the 24-hour long period that we were getting constant Rosetta updates and live video from ESA. I don’t think I need to rehash it as you’ve probably seen it and at least some of the fallout, as well as some trendy alternatives. For many of us, it was a highly visible example of constant microagressions against women in science, like being told you’ll never get as much respect as your male peers because you have boobs, having to grin an bear it through uncomfortable jokes and and comments, being told to “be quiet and let the men speak,” being told, “wow, you’re pretty for a *insert science field here*”, or “that isn’t conference attire.” And that’s just the kind of crap I have dealt with or have seen women colleagues deal with and doesn’t even touch on the struggles of people of color, people with disabilities, or our LGBTQ peers in the sciences.

This conversation about a shirt, it was a side conversation, yes, but an important one because it was so highly visible. I have no doubt there were some less than helpful responses, and there was a question of whether it went into actual bullying. I don’t know if it did, at least I didn’t see the same kind of vitriol that I see hurled at women on a daily basis. Still, any kind of name-calling was probably not helpful and I didn’t support that, but I did support highlighting the issue, and, yes, asking for an apology.

Instead of doubling down, the man wearing the shirt, scientist Matt Taylor, DID apologize. I don’t know him personally, though some of my followers do and swear that he’s actually a good guy. Emily Lakdawalla tweeted about the apology and said it was very genuine. And you know what? I’m glad for that. Being able to say, “hey, that wasn’t a good thing I did” EVEN IF YOU DID NOT MEAN HARM is important for realizing that actions have impact despite the intention. And that impact is negatively affecting your peers, and it’s okay to realize it and make a change. That is positive and that is awesome. And it’s okay to forgive, but not to forget that particular example to remind your own peers to “not do stuff like that” if they really care about equity in science. I’m still pretty flabbergasted that a whole team of people at ESA let it go on the air on a livestream that was highly publicized, especially to schools. I’d still like to see some kind of acknowledgement from an organizational level, for that doesn’t bode well for a PR team. But… I guess we can’t have everything.

And if it ended there? We’d move on and be celebrating Philae’s successes and mourning it’s probable passing. (I will treat that subject in its own blog post. It deserves it.) But the thing that has lasted far longer than Philae’s batteries is what has really marred the occasion and all but driven me and my female colleagues away from the social media platforms where we love to share science. Everyday, there are more and more tweets and message from people (largely men) who are upset that the “feminazis” ruined the mission, distracted from the science, and brought a poor innocent man to tears. The backlash against the initial #shirtstorm has completely overwhelmed the original conversation, even the Rosetta mission itself, I’m afraid.

This is probably a sign of this happening in an already amped up environment. For years now, women have been fighting to carve out safe spaces in science, tech, comics, conventions, all the traditionally “nerdy white male” spaces. And we’re getting feedback now in the form of “Gamer Gate” and “men’s rights activists,” whole movements of people who are upset at the upsetting of the status quo. So maybe it’s not a surprise in hindsight, but I’m supremely disappointed. There is more than enough space to celebrate an amazing scientific and technical achievement AND discuss the ongoing subtle sexism in science and academia WITHOUT it devolving into an all out war. If I’m spending half my time on Twitter blocking vitriol, that’s time I’m not sharing science. That’s actually driving us away from even wanting to interact.

You say that sexism isn’t a problem? You say that “it’s just a shirt?” Look at how “just a shirt” has blown up into yet another aggressive campaign against those who call for an inclusive environment for all. We won’t back down. But take it as a teaching moment… these things exist and go on regularly and disrupt the lives and work of women in science careers.

And yes, on another level, it’s just a shirt and just a guy that, I believe, didn’t really intend any harm. In the grand cosmic scheme, WE PUT A ROBOT ON A COMET. However, it’s an indicator of a pervasive and destructive problem throughout the workforce, particularly in science and tech careers.

We’re turning the tide and we won’t stay quiet about it anymore. And that hurts sometimes. But we won’t go backwards.

Featured Image: “Tshirt” CC oatsy40 on Flickr


Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/noisyastronomer

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  1. Thanks for this post, Nicole.

    I posted some comments online in support of Katie Mack’s (very reasonable) comments. For this, I was told by people who assumed I was a woman that they feel sorry for my husband since I’m a frigid bitch. They said that I’m in for a world of pain. They said they want to smash my face in with a brick. And I know I got only a tiny fraction of the abuse that many women received.

    And all those people who were so concerned about the tone of the (generally very mild) comments directed at Matt Taylor, I didn’t see them expressing any concern about the threats of actual violence directed at the people who thought the shirt wasn’t an awesome idea.

  2. Just who is it that needs to remember that this was started by ‘just a shirt?’

    Of course a creepy, kitschy, garish, shirt deserves some comment. Especially as it’s ‘content’ evokes geek-fantasy iconography while the anti-Sarkeesian jihad is raging. It is the subsequent flood of hatred and rabid fury from the gaters and MRAs that makes the point. THAT, is what distracts from Taylor and Co.’s actual achievement.

  3. I personally don’t agree that it’s an example of sexism or “micro aggression” towards women, however I really can’t stand the argument that a lot of people seem to make that suggests that he should be excused because “He just landed a rocket on a freaking comet!!”. The discussion about whether the shirt is sexist or not should be entirely separate from the character or achievements of Matt Taylor – you don’t get a free pass to be sexist or bigoted just because you have done something awesome.

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