The man in question is Dr Matt Taylor, a senior scientist on the mission, and this is the shirt:
|"Covered with half-naked women" would be a fair description.|
Source: BBC News
Taylor has made an apparently sincere apology:
It is right for Taylor to apologise. He deserves respect for doing so; for admitting his mistake and taking responsibility for it; and for making a clear and straightforward apology, without resorting to weasel words like "it is regrettable if anyone was offended". The SF author John Scalzi has written that apologising well is a valuable skill, and this is a good example.
To his credit, Taylor did not apologise as part of a discussion about the shirt. He volunteered a brief apology; paused to compose himself; then got on with enthusiastically answering the question he had been asked about the mission.
Some of the more clueless elements of the Internet claim not to understand why it was wrong for Taylor to wear the shirt. In itself, that means little; the Internet has limitless reserves of stupidity. What interests me is that Taylor himself clearly didn't understand, and nobody at ESA stepped up to tell him before it went public. It took media attention and an angry reaction on Twitter to achieve that.
Why was it wrong for Taylor to wear the shirt in that time and place?
The time and place are vital. If Taylor thinks it is a marvellously attractive shirt, and wants to wear it to the park, the supermarket, or the pub, any resulting problems are his alone. At these times, it's clear he represents no one but himself.
This is not so when Taylor is at work, let alone being interviewed in his capacity as a senior scientist. At this time, he represents his institution's mission and values. Then the shirt is not just his problem; it belongs to ESA, and indirectly to me as a scientist and EU taxpayer.
Taylor's shirt is not a neutral item. Even the most cloistered scientist should know that violence and discrimination against women are serious problems in our society. Using sexualized images of women as gratuitous decoration, effectively no more than wallpaper, contributes to the mentality that a woman has no value beyond her appearance. Whether he realised it or not, Taylor was making a statement that such images are acceptable. It was no different from hanging a poster of a bikini-clad woman on his office wall.
In his professional capacity, Taylor has no business doing this. Astronomy is already a boys' club, where women face an uphill struggle to be taken seriously. Taylor has a responsibility to discourage sexism, instead of not-so-subtly participating in it.
Suppose Taylor is responsible for supervising a female PhD student. Can she be confident he will respect and value her intellect? That shirt would leave her in some doubt.
There is another reason why Taylor's shirt is wrong for workplaces other than strip clubs. Sexualized pictures push our emotional buttons; that is why they are omnipresent in the media. These pictures provoke strong, involuntary responses which do not belong at work. Some people -- for example anorexics, or survivors of sexual abuse -- might be deeply hurt, and it is not fair to subject them to that. Even if they are happy looking at the pictures, ESA scientists are not employed to think sexy thoughts.
Finally, workplaces have a minimum standard of dignity and good manners. I assume Taylor has no difficulty understanding that he should wear trousers, shower regularly, and chew with his mouth closed. Quite simply, a shirt depicting half-naked women (or men) is not correct professional attire.
This really isn't difficult. Most of us learned it at an early age. "No, you can't wear your favourite dinosaur pyjamas to Aunt Ethel's wedding, now go and change." Taylor grasped it much later, but at least he has got the message now.
This is not just Taylor's personal failing, but one of ESA as an institution. I myself work at a large scientific institute. The dress code is casual, and silly T-shirts are commonplace; but for the reasons I have outlined, Taylor's shirt is different and unacceptable.
There are two possibilities. Either Taylor wore this shirt to work regularly; or he wore it for the first time when he was interviewed that day, perhaps because he had been waiting for a special occasion.
In the first case, there is a serious problem with ESA's management. If I was the manager of someone who wore Taylor's shirt to work -- or a shirt depicting half-naked men -- I would tell the employee in question to change or go home. If I did not have direct responsibility for this person, I might discreetly raise my concerns with his or her manager.
If the shirt appeared for the first time that day, no doubt things were excited and chaotic at ESA mission control, and senior managers overlooked questions of dress sense. However, on my campus we regularly have camera crews on site, and there are full-time staff to handle media relations. Those staff would deserve a severe reprimand if they let someone wear a shirt like that on camera. Even if there weren't any press officers nearby, someone should have said to Taylor, "You should maybe change that shirt before you go on television."
So far as we know, nobody stepped forward to question Taylor's behaviour. ESA needs to take a hard look at itself, to ensure incidents like this don't happen again, and correct any wider problems of hostility to women.
If I was part of the Rosetta mission, I would be furious that all of my hard work was overshadowed, and my team had been made to look like sexist idiots, because of this foolish choice of clothing.