Erika Cule

When is a shirt not just a shirt?

Here at Belle Jar, we like to celebrate women. On International Women’s Day, we wrote about the inspiring women in our lives. We raised awareness of Ada Lovelace Day. And soon, we will be able to sartorially celebrate women in science.

Last week, an international scientific milestone was reached, when the Philae lander touched down on 67P/Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a ten-year journey through space aboard the Rosetta spacecraft. Project Scientist Dr Matt Taylor spoke to the media on behalf of the Eurpoean Space Agency about this astonishing achievement. Dr Taylor was called out for the shirt he wore, for which he apologised. For some more background to the #shirtgate scandal, you can find a comprehensive collection of links here. One good thing that resulted from Dr Taylor’s controversial clothing choice was the awareness it raised of the endemic sexism in science. And one awesome thing to emerge from the whole affair was initiated by the speedy tongue-in-cheek response on twitter from Elly Zupko:

After her tweet got retweeted thousands of times, Elly got stuck into making the shirt for real. She called for people to email and tweet her with nominations for scientists to go on the shirt. From the aforementioned Ada Lovelace to mathematician Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat, the list is now more than 100-strong. How many have you heard of? As I write, Elly is sourcing Creative Commons/Public Domain pictures of these women, so if you can help with that, please do!

Scientists love to wear their science on their T-shirts (and even their tattoos). But women in science are continually underrepresented in images of scientists. Images of women in science are important, to help counter stereotype threat and address that leaky pipeline that has been the subject of much discussion but remains a problem. Scientists pride themselves on drawing conclusions based on observable, empirical evidence. But that doesn’t mean that science operates free of unconscious bias which scientists have a responsibility to address.

So, to understand why it was that so many people spoke out about Dr Matt Taylor’s clothing choice, spend some time reading about why for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) it isn’t just a shirt.

And keep an eye out for that other shirt, being worn with pride by a scientist near you.

UPDATE: The ‘Women in Science’ Shirt is now available to support on Kickstarter – pledge $35 and it will be yours!


More resources on Women in Science:

The WISE campaign

Athena SWAN Charter

Women in Science on Occam’s Typewriter

Erika Cule blogs at Occam’s Typewriter. You can find her on twitter.

2 thoughts on “When is a shirt not just a shirt?

  1. Well said. 🙂

    One thing which pops up every now and then as a result of #thisothershirt annoys me, however. I quote the advice from the linked io9-piece: “involving public relations experts in managing event optics” should be one lesson learned from this?

    Hell, no.

    I concur with the ideas of team trainings on representation. I think it’s vitally important that we learn to see ourselves through the eyes of an observant and very diverse audience, if we represent a science team, or “science” in general.

    But involving PR is the *worst* thing which can happen. And have had quite some experience with PR people “breaking down the message”, “streamlining” the information, and, worst of all, “creating a corporate identity”. I could go spare when I read #thatotheradvice to involve PR people. We are *not* selling something. We are *not* a corporation. We are scientists. We do science. And if we don’t wear the bloody institution logo, there should be no bloody contractual penalties.

    Involve a diversity manager. Involve communications trainers. Involve communication psychologists, if you must.

    But never, ever, involve PR in science. Never.

  2. Most women in STEM were not against this shirt. It was a minority. Just as it was a minority who claimed it was sexist.

    Ironic that 2 weeks previously it was revealed that the poor women who had manufactured the “This is what a feminist looks like” shirts for the Elle campaign were earning 26 USD per week in a Mauritian sweatshop.

    You didn’t see any of these people protesting that.

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