Last week a man, Dr Matt Taylor of ESA, made a mistake. The mistake was pointed out to him by other scientists, both men and women. He apologised. We moved on.
Except, we weren’t allowed to move on.
The act of pointing out the mistake made brought down waves of opprobrium on the women (and, curiouslynotcuriously, almost entirely on the women) who did so, from all over the internet. A sickening display of male condemnation from the likes of the Daily Mail, Boris Johnson and others in the Telegraph, and Prof. Richard Dawkins on Twitter helped rouse the sexist rabble. Specious arguments were made, and are still being made, as to why wearing That Shirt wasn’t wrong and Taylor shouldn’t have ‘been forced’ to apologise.
I’m going to address many of the points here. Let me be clear that this is not a personal attack on Taylor, he has already accepted responsibility for his action and apologised. This is about sexism more generally, and the trolling on #ShirtStorm in particular.
Let's take this from the top.
Taylor made a mistake. This is easy enough to do; he was, like almost all people, raised in a society where casual sexism - microaggressions - are accepted as part of the culture. I don’t know Taylor, but from the accounts of people who do, he’s not a sexist. I have no reason to believe his apology wasn’t sincere, as is implied by those claiming he was forced to make it, and thus his breaking down in tears was caused not by being forced to make this apology against his will but by the realisation that he had let himself down, let ESA down, and let science down. Those who are ‘defending’ Taylor, claiming his right to wear the shirt and damn the consequences, are effectively calling him a liar.
What about the right to free speech?
Free speech means you have the right, as a private citizen, to say anything (within certain restrictions, normally including incitement to hatred/violence/criminal acts) without the government punishing you for that speech. A common misunderstanding is that this means nobody can censure you. This has been shown time and again to be untrue - if you say something that embarrasses your employer, they are quite free to take disciplinary action or fire you. This normally applies when speaking as an employee - either in the workplace or as a spokesperson, but for well-known figures (including community figures such as teachers or policemen, for example) it could apply to speech made anywhere. (As an aside, this was one of the reasons for academic tenure - it meant academics cannot be sacked for taking unpopular stances.)
Free speech most obviously does not apply in the workplace, where rules on harassment place limits on what can be said. This includes not just overtly sexist actions, but “creating … an offensive environment” (quote from Acas guidance). Wearing the shirt was creating an offensive environment. Intent is unimportant, it’s the effect that’s important (this is a legal principle, not just something I’m saying). Had it been part of a pattern of behaviour, wearing that shirt would have constituted harassment (to be clear, I’ve not heard any claims that it was part of a pattern of behaviour).
Furthermore, Taylor was not simply at work, or even just representing his employer. He was on the world stage, representing astronomy. In this situation, free speech is not relevant - there is an expectation that someone in such a position will give an accurate account of what’s happening, behave in an audience-appropriate manner, and avoid giving offence, particularly to marginalised groups. It is amazing that nobody from ESA told him his shirt was inappropriate before he went in front of the cameras - ESA should be accepting some of the blame for this, but we have yet to hear an apology from them.
Was the shirt really that bad?
Yes, it was. We have a problem in astronomy (as in many other sciences) with women being underrepresented. This shirt presented an objectified, sexual view of women. The message it sent was ‘I value women for their bodies’. Unfortunately ours is a society where brainy women are considered unsexy, and sexy women brainless, so while a man may be considered both intelligent and sexy, the implication of ‘I value women for their bodies’ is ‘and not for their brains’. As a message sent out to millions across the world in the name of science, that really is not acceptable. This was summed up wonderfully on Twitter by science journalist Rose Eveleth: “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt”. For an in-depth discussion of this, see this article by Dr Zuleyka Zevallos.
Isn’t this distracting from the amazing achievement?
This may be surprising for the trolls, but most scientists are capable of holding two thoughts in their minds simultaneously (sometimes even more). We were all absolutely thrilled by the achievement of landing on a comet for the first time. I was in an important meeting with the NSF last Wednesday so couldn’t watch the live feed, but still found time to check the web periodically to see how things were going. I know that Dr Katie Mack - one of the woman scientists singled out by the Telegraph as having criticised Taylor - has appeared on the media multiple times talking about Rosetta and Philae (I also note that while Taylor was ‘Dr Taylor’ in the Telegraph, Mack was stripped of her title - another subtle microaggression and a clear breach of their own Style Book). I know that when I was answering questions at an event at Arecibo Observatory last weekend attended by over 1300 people, I got lots of questions about the landing and none about the shirt. There is simply no evidence that the shirt has distracted either astronomers or the public from celebrating the Rosetta team’s accomplishment. It seems the only ones who have been distracted are the trolls, who are so put out of joint by the idea of women having opinions that they can’t move on and insist on continuing to ‘discuss’ this.
So why are you writing this? Shouldn’t you be working?
Firstly, it’s a holiday in Puerto Rico today, so I’m not at work. Secondly, trolls have been harassing my professional colleagues for speaking out over an important issue. Thirdly, there’s this:
Why aren’t you writing about what Philae has discovered instead? Haven’t you more important things to do?
So important I could watch my colleagues being attacked and threatened and not do or say anything about it? I think not. Besides, I’m not a planetary scientist so have no scientific insights to add to the Philae story: anything I could say would merely be culled from the news reports.
Aren’t you just a Social Justice Warrior?
Yes. And proud of it.
I believe in ‘chwarae teg’ (‘fair play’ to those who don’t know Welsh). When I was growing up, this was considered a basic value of civilisation. But for some people, selfishness (as exemplified by Johnson and his chums from the Bullingdon Club) seems to have replaced it as a virtue. As Augustine of Hippo put it in De Civitate Dei way back in the 5th century: “Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?” (“Without justice, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers?”). Those who oppose social justice are the robbers who benefit from its absence.