Written by Jess Zimmerman
This week, the European Space Agency pulled off two extraordinary feats: a historic and exciting probe landing on a comet, and an act of bad taste so extreme that it manages to show up the worst of exclusionary science culture in one ugly garment.
ESA scientist Matt Taylor, perhaps emboldened by the viral success of mohawked NASA dreamboat Bobak Ferdowsi, made the dubious choice to do his media interviews in a shirt covered in bustiered cartoon ladies. This met with moderate outrage, as a number of science journalists pointed out that going on TV bedecked with the entire contents of a Heavy Metal magazine is maybe not the way to send the message “science is a respectful and supportive field for women.” That's where the REAL outrage started.
With their usual immunity to irony, men on the internet got very, VERY angry about the “overreaction” to Taylor's shirt. In particular, they latched onto a tweet by science writer and editor Rose Eveleth (full disclosure: a friend of mine and an awesome person). Rose's “overreaction” featured mild sarcasm: “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.” The Internet Men Collective's entirely proportional response included “kill yourself,” “quit your bitching,” the inexplicable “sometimes try sex, you'll be better,” and a sigh-inducing “get back in the kitchen” cliché.
But the “jump off a cliff” responses were larded with a huge portion of something even more insidious: a whole battalion of helpful men sniffing that Taylor obviously didn't MEAN to offend. He just wanted to wear his funny fancy shirt! He didn't intend to make a point about how science and scientists view women, or the role that women play! He wasn't even thinking at ALL about how women might feel!
Well, yes. That's actually the problem. Taylor's shirt sends the message that women aren't welcome in the science community not because he was intending to send that message, but because he didn't care.
If you asked Taylor directly, he'd probably say he was a big supporter of women in STEM. Most advisers and lab directors and tenure committees would tell you the same. Overtly misogynist throwbacks certainly exist, but one of the paltry nice things about 2014 is that by now, very few male scientists would tell a woman “you're not welcome here." Not to her face.
But that's not the only way sexism works. No, sexism in science doesn't mean advisers take their students aside and say “don't worry, you'll pass your thesis defense, because I've noticed we both have a penis.” It doesn't mean tenure committee meetings include the action item “DID YOU NOTICE SHE'S A WOMAN? INAPPROPRIATE? DISCUSS.” It doesn't mean lab doors have signs saying “no open-toed shoes and no chicks.”
Here's what male scientists and historically male-led departments do instead: Offer little or no maternity leave for graduate students. Evaluate women employees on their personalities rather than their competence. Make jokes that cause women colleagues to feel left out and belittled. Go on national television in a shirt that shows women as decorative, sexualized semi-nudes. Hire people who just seem to fit in with the culture that thinks all of this is okay.
These aren't targeted, conscious, deliberate acts of discrimination. They're a miasma, a stench that settles over the science building and tells women: “This place isn't for you.” And it's a stink that men can't even smell—that's what privilege means. They're not trying to make a noxious cloud; they support women in STEM! They just aren't equipped to notice it, not unless they're looking. Not unless they get out their sensors and analyze everything like a Ghostbuster walking around the New York Public Library. Who has the time?
Well, if you don't have the time, then congratulations: You do not support women in STEM. You don't want them there. If you did, you'd make a micron of effort to detect and dispel the Man Only fumes settling over your lab. Instead, you're sitting at your microscope in the middle of a dense fog of poison you're immune to, telling women “come on into the gas cloud, I don't see why you wouldn't, it's fine for me.” And the sensor is inches from your hand, but you're too lazy to pick it up.
If you actually do want to support women in STEM—and I believe that many men believe they do—then yes, you have to pay attention, and think, and care about how your culture treats them and how it makes them feel. I know this is hard. It's unfamiliar, and unfamiliar things are often uncomfortable. It doesn't come naturally right away. It may not come naturally for a while.
But it sure isn't rocket science.