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That T-Shirt: Sexism in Science Is So Prevalent and Its Subtle Manifestations Still Need to Be Called Out

18/11/2014 15:07 GMT | Updated 17/01/2015 10:59 GMT

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I would like to preface this article by stating that I think this shirt is fucking cool. It is awesome and beautiful. It is a majestic work of art and I love it.

I also think it was a completely inappropriate thing to wear on television when announcing the first ever landing of a probe on a comet. An incredible, historic moment beamed across the globe, that was produced by an industry that is generally regarded as a boys club, and one that is ostracising to women on a good day. This is an industry in which, in America, women make up only 24% of the science, technology, engineering and maths workforce. It's an industry in which just one-third of the UK's science graduates are women, and only 9% are professors. Nine percent. It is clear that women often feel alienated and ostracised from the science community. This isn't to put a downer on all those people working hard to make science more accessible to women - you're doing an awesome job, thank you. But I'm just pointing out some institutionalised sexism that is pretty old news.

I don't care if someone has done something amazing. Dr Matt Taylor certainly is an incredible scientist, and has helped to achieve something awe-inspiring. Kudos to him. I genuinely mean it. I also don't believe that he deserves to be vilified for his choice of clothing, or that he deserves to receive online abuse. People make mistakes, he apologised, that's awesome. No one is perfect. He's a three-dimensional human being that made a questionable choice, that he took responsibility for. That's fine, we can all move on.

What I do take issue with, however are these points: number one, 'it's only a shirt so you crazy womens calm down and realise that sexism only comes in REALLY OBVIOUS ways that have no nuance or subtlety whatsoever'. Now, far be it from me to silence anyone who thinks that the shirt is not sexist - that is a completely fair opinion to have, and I am interested in hearing why you think that the shirt and/or his choice to wear it on that occasion are not sexist. Maybe it isn't sexist, maybe I am wrong. Maybe I'm not. In a healthy society we can all have a respectful, open debate about these topics without anyone being shamed for holding a different opinion.

However, what I do take issue with is this painting of men and women who call out subtle forms of sexism as being overly hysterical, whining people who have no idea what REAL oppression looks like, who just need to get a sense of perspective into their crazy, irrational skulls. That they're all just part of this giant political correctness machine that is trying to kill happiness and fun for everyone. It actually takes guts to call out something that you see as damaging, and I think it's hurtful to immediately shut down someone's argument by implying that they are irrational or stupid. It's not respectful. It's close-minded. That doesn't mean you have to agree with them, just don't take their opinion with a pinch of salt.

Not all sexism manifests itself in laws and legal rights. Yes, wearing a shirt like this is not as bad as women not being able to vote or have access to education. Everyone is aware of this. But sometimes sexism shows itself in the most subtle, nuanced ways, and it still needs to be called out. This doesn't mean the person propagating it deserves vilification, but we can respectfully yet assertively call out the subtle forms of sexism when we see it, without the people who called it out being dismissed as whining harpy killjoys with no sense of humour. There is a reason why some studies show that women can receive a whopping £1.312 billion less in scientific research grant funding than men. There is a reason why many studies show that, when presented with identical applications differing only in male and female names, science professors are far more likely to offer the male applicant the job, and if they do choose the female, they will pay them on average nearly $4,000 less than their male equivalent. These attitudes don't come out of nowhere. Of course this shirt didn't cause this institutionalised sexism, and of course Taylor probably never meant for the shirt to send out a sexist message, but for many women it is just another reminder of the alienation and lack of respect that they feel within the scientific community.

Problem number two that I have: the idea that just because someone has done something super awesome, ridiculous and amazing like send a comet into SPAAACE, that that means they are immune from being called out for any behaviour that people find hurtful and offensive. I mean, come on are you serious? Just because you do something spectacular doesn't mean you automatically get some golden shield of untouchability, making the offensiveness of your actions any less problematic and less call-out-worthy. No.

So to round off: awesome shirt, wore it to the wrong occasion, apology accepted. Don't ridicule those who stand up for what they believe in, and no one's uncriticisable (is that a word?). Cool.