Folmsbee: Sexist shirt worn by scientist indicative of larger problem


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Last Wednesday, the European Space Agency landed a robotic spacecraft on a comet – the first time this has happened in human history. The Rosetta Mission remains an awe-inspiring milestone for astronomical exploration, as this particular comet’s size and complicated orbit around the sun meant it took the spacecraft about 10 years of travel through space to reach it. Planning and designing such a landing was a Herculean effort, requiring international cooperation and mathematical precision beyond what we have ever done before. But during a televised interview with Matt Taylor, one of the scientists working on the project, a more interesting story began to develop: The scientist wore a shirt decorated with scantily clad women during the press appearance, making him the immediate target for feminist criticism. In becoming the unfortunate poster child for the sexist scientific establishment, he represents the evolving nature of sexism in science, and why it is so important to recognize this trend.

The shirt itself is hard to defend, because it is covered in cartoon women in various states of undress. At best, it is inappropriate attire for such a professional setting, and at worst, it creates the image that the only women needed for space exploration are those who have inconveniently forgotten their spacesuits.

To be fair, Taylor isn’t the villain of this story; he is merely its protagonist. After receiving criticism, he gave a sincere and tearful apology for wearing the shirt. Clearly, he understands that his mistake was serious, and he is willing to learn from it. It is one positive aspect of this embarrassing situation.

But Taylor’s shirt isn’t the most offensive aspect of this story. The shirt may be oddly erotic, but he certainly was not wearing it as a direct affront to women. The important, yet forgotten, question is this: Why didn’t anyone stop him from wearing this shirt? Surely any of his colleagues could have taken him aside and recommended a change of clothes. It’s much more concerning that no one recognized that it was sexist, which reflects fundamental flaws in the entire team-based structure of scientific investigation.

Unquestionably, sexism remains a real problem in science. Although about 50 percent of science and engineering doctorates are earned by women, only 21 percent of full science professors are women. To make things worse, a recent study showed that male professors were still less likely to train female students, even more so if those professors were Nobel laureates. But just as troubling are the small and omnipresent injustices that women in scientific fields must face every day. These challenges cannot be quantified by studies, but are constant reminders of a sexist system, from belittling comments from colleagues to harassing suggestions from advisers.

Could more women in science fix this problem? It would certainly help, but it would also be naive to think that sexism in science would be eliminated if 50 percent of scientists were women. Ironically, it is also radically sexist to expect only women to police fairness and equality. To end the patriarchal dominance of science, we will also need the help of the patriarchs. We need to expect better from the men in science, as “feminist” is not a label exclusively given to women. When men see disparities based on gender with regard to research awards, salary or baseline human respect, they cannot simply wait for a woman to intervene. If men were the ones who corrupted the foundations of science with sexism, the least they could do is help clean it up.

Decades ago, the male guard of science was still openly dismissive of up-and-coming female scientists, and thankfully current day scientist training programs are much more open. But sexism isn’t dead, it has merely transformed from hatred and oppression to ignorance and indifference. The sad truth is that Taylor’s shirt wasn’t even that sexist. It was more strange than damaging. But it represented the insidious bigotry that has not left scientific careers. What is far worse and far more sexist are the offenses that are not caught on camera and are not so easily fixed as a quick wardrobe visit. It’s the young woman who is told by her professor and scientific mentor that research does not fit motherhood. It’s the career female scientist still struggling for relevance in a field she helped establish. It’s the little girl who cannot imagine growing up to design satellites because she only sees men working at NASA. Yes, we can laugh at a silly shirt, but we must continue to fight against what it represents.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].