Sunday 16 November 2014

The Rosetta shirt incident

This week, the Rosetta mission landed a probe on a comet; but instead of a richly deserved celebration of their achievement, a lot of discussion centred on one man's shirt. This is not just a failing of one individual, but of the European Space Agency as a whole.

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.


  1. Hi Iain, I followed the link you left at my FDL post. Thanks for taking the time to reply; here are a few thoughts on them.

    "Take your example of a gay couple holding hands while walking down the street. If Joe Smith feels uncomfortable looking at them, so what? They aren’t physically harming Joe, stopping him from going about his business, or threatening his career or livelihood. Any consequences of their hand-holding exist only in Joe’s mind, so it’s fair to just tell him to get over it."

    I was trying to make the same point about the shirt. Everything you wrote (aren't physically harming, stopping anyone from going about their business, etc) applies to the shirt as well. It's a difference of kind, not degree, from less pay for same work, discriminatory hiring practices, and so on.

    "Now let’s imagine Matt Taylor supervises a female PhD student, Jane Smith. Can she be confident he will value her intellect, and not her looks? Suppose she has been sexually harassed by a third party at work. Can she be confident Taylor will behave responsibly if she makes a complaint? In both cases, that shirt would give Jane good reason to have doubts."

    I dislike thought experiments and think they tend to be used to construct hypotheticals rather than consider actual events. If Taylor does indeed have female subordinates who have reported harassment and he hasn't acted on it, then that is a problem that needs to be addressed. But I don't think it's safe to take the wearing of that shirt as some sort of leading indicator of sexism.

    "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."

    This is probably the nut of our disagreement. I think it's reductive to say that men are only capable of regarding women as a monolith. I think adults should be given a little more credit than that, at least until they prove otherwise. I think it's possible to look at a poster of a bikini-clad woman and think, wow is she hot - and then turn around and regard a female colleague a fully competent. (And to turn on the TV, see Monica Grady and take for granted that she is scary smart.)

    To me, saying that appreciating some of the finer specimens means thinking women have no value beyond their appearance just leads to a dull and joyless place. Adults are, among many other things, sexual beings. Being able to acknowledge and celebrate that adds some color to life, at least for some of us. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I'd like to think those of us in that camp should be allowed such (what I consider to be) harmless expressions - and for those who aren't to let it pass with rolled eyes instead of an avalanche of criticism.

    Many of his critics, including you, said there's nothing wrong with office casual, and that a Hawaiian shirt with, say, a floral print would have been taken as charmingly eccentric. So it isn't the dressing down that's a problem, just that, in your judgment, this particular form of it was different and unacceptable. But since it isn't harming anyone - apart from some unquantifiable psychic pain to those who don't like it - why not just live and let live?

  2. Thanks for your comment, I'll now try and reply.

    I don't think you've understood my point. As with any case of discrimination, this is all about power. The gay couple walking down the street have no power to materially affect the lives of passers-by. Matt Taylor certainly does have power to affect the work and careers of his colleagues. It's not just about Taylor's personal behaviour, but the example he sets for others as a senior member of staff.

    Accordingly, Taylor should avoid even the appearance of endorsing sexism, because appearances matter.

    This is not about men who are polite and respectful towards women at all times. By definition, they police themselves. This is about dissuading men who have a real problem with women. If an environment contains not-so-subtle cues that it's OK to treat women as objects, they will pick up on that. There are many ways in which men can (and do) make womens' lives miserable at work, without leaving the witnesses or documentation which would be required by a formal disciplinary procedure. Any workplace, especially one like ESA where women are a small minority, needs to make clear it has zero tolerance of harassment.

    Putting that bikini poster on the wall is a mild form of harassment. Who is this woman on the poster? What are her hopes, dreams, and thoughts? Nobody cares. All that matters is how she looks. This comes out in your choice of language. She isn't a personality, she's a "specimen". That word is more often used to mean an animal undergoing dissection.

    The unsubtle message to anyone who sees the poster is, decoration is what women are good for. This will encourage men who believe (consciously or otherwise) that this is all women are good for. It is also a message to women that they will not be taken seriously, and in particular any grievances will receive a less than sympathetic hearing.

    Your comments imply an ideal world in which everyone is totally rational about sexuality; there is no such thing as systematic discrimination against women; and hardcore pornography is neutral entertainment, no different from a tennis match (watching porn is just an expression of natural sexual urges, after all). This world doesn't exist and probably never will; we have to live in the real one.

    Finally, there is a glaring contradiction in your argument. On the one hand, you strenuously insist that Taylor's shirt is No Big Deal. On the other, you claim it is incredibly important to Taylor; so that being denied permission to wear it at work constitutes an unreasonable restriction on his freedom to actualize himself as a human being and express his sexuality.

    That is nonsense. Taylor can express his sexuality all he wants, he just can't do it at work. It's not difficult. I don't know what it is like where you live, but here in the UK, any menswear shop has hundreds of shirts, in all sizes, colours and patterns, none of which depict semi-naked women. It's amazingly easy to dress yourself and express your sense of personal style, without wearing a shirt that shouts to the world, "I really love boobies!"

    Don't get me wrong, I like pictures of naked women as much as the next man. But I'm capable of doing without them while I'm at work, out of of respect and courtesy to my female colleagues -- and also because they aren't conducive to concentrating on my job.

    This is why, as a senior scientist myself, I would have no hesitation in telling someone who wore Taylor's shirt to work to change or go home.