People took note when a scientist explained a major breakthrough while wearing a shirt showing women as sex objects.

November 17, 2014

A scientific triumph last week -- the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission landing a robot on a comet -- has renewed the debate over whether many male researchers just don't get it when women talk about feeling less than welcome in science.

Matt Taylor, one of the lead scientists on the project, was filmed on television discussing his accomplishments, but very quickly people started talking about why he was wearing a shirt depicting women in various revealing poses. And thus was born a debate that over the weekend was being called either Shirtstorm or Shirtgate (in both Twitter hashtags and in other discussion). To some it was the latest evidence that science has a woman problem. To others, it was out-of-control political correctness.

Rose Eveleth, a writer on technology and science for The Atlantic, is credited (or blamed) by many for launching the debate. On Twitter, she wrote (with a photograph of Taylor in the shirt): "No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt."

As word spread about the issue, with many women in science agreeing, others spoke out against the sartorial criticisms. Many tweets about Eveleth from her critics are abusive, suggesting she must hate men or need to have more sex.

A milder one said: "If a guy's shirt discourages a woman from a career in science, her services are much more valuable in women's studies." Eveleth responded: "The correct response to women pointing out that something might discourage women in science is not: 'stupid women stay out of science!' "

Some have noted the irony that a male scientist is being discussed more for what he wore than what he did intellectually. Said another comment on Twitter: "Behold a man that was judged by the way he looked and not for his brain." Another person on Twitter suggested a way to redesign the shirt (at right above) to honor women in science.

Many have rejected the idea that Taylor's research achievements should excuse his tactless fashion. The headline on one new essay: "I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing."

And some have noted that Taylor didn't just wear the shirt, but made sexual jokes during the press briefing that attracted so much attention. The Washington Post noted that he called the Rosetta mission the "sexiest mission there's ever been," and then said that "she is sexy, but I never said she is easy."

The shirt is hardly the first time that a prominent scientist has made non-scholarly choices or statements that have raised questions about the treatment of women in science, In 2012, for example, a prominent neuroscientist posted on Facebook his frustrations with the lack of attractive women at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. "There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent."

While there has been much commentary defending Taylor, he isn't defending his choice of shirt.

In a video interview, he broke down during an apology in which he said that he had made "a big mistake," adding "I offended many people and I'm very sorry about this."



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