This is a guest post by New Zealand writer Sian Hannagan.
The title is ironic, I know what you do, you’re a scientist. Actually a brilliant scientist, doing amazing work in a field which is capturing global attention. I don’t think many people have missed the Rosetta Project and the big things coming from this. I mean, landing on a comet, awesome! The thing is, STEM field disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math, are all historically pretty male dominated spaces. They have an ongoing issue with being seen as exclusionary to women. This isn't your fault, and no one should blame you for decades of discrimination against women. But it is a thing and it is happening. We need to be aware of it.
Here’s the thing. I don’t hate your top. I wouldn't wear it myself, and if someone wore it around me, I might make a judgement about their character that may or may not be founded. But I support your right to wear that top and wear it with pride.
But, I also think you made a silly decision, which I think you know too. Because you apologised. You wore a top that you love, to an event you were excited about. You probably didn't think about it much. You dig the top, you feel good wearing it and it was a top you wanted to wear. So you wore it. It just happened that this event was a live televised event with journalists. There was a lot of scrutiny there, and you were there not just as yourself, but as someone representing your field.
So someone criticised your clothing, and that sucked. I get it. I really do, I mean, this kinda thing happens to women on a daily basis. They get told they are dressed dowdy, or unflattering or too sexy, or inappropriately. Everywhere a woman wears clothes, someone has something to say. And often those things don’t relate to her competence or her as a person. They relate solely to what she looks like. And that’s not okay. When you got criticised I bet you felt pretty crummy. I bet you felt like the work you did meant nothing in the face of that criticism, and that your essential value was being ignored in the face of what feels to you, to be superficial critique. Women deal with this every day. We get it. And we get these criticisms every day because the sexually idealised objectified image of the female form is ubiquitous: it is used through all aspects of life, to sell, to market and to be ogled. She appears everywhere, from advertising, to fashion…to men’s shirts.
Here’s the thing though, for those of us getting hot under the collar at this journalist for her apparent disregard for your scientific contributions - she didn't criticise your character or your previous work. She just pointed out that the top you wore, wasn't appropriate to the situation you wore it in. You were at your place of work, representing your chosen career, representing science to a wide audience that included women. It’s just when you’re publicly representing an industry known to be exclusionary to women, what you wear matters. A lot. Especially given a study conducted by Catalyst last month revealing 73 percent of women in tech-intensive industries felt like an outsider, compared to just 17 percent of men. I mentioned at the top of this article how this industry was perceived as being exclusionary to women, right? So, that. It would be like me wearing a top covered in penises to an erectile dysfunction conference. A bit on the nose.
So it came as no surprise that the top you wore – which is the textile equivalent of a sexy calendar, porn in the toilet or nude lady mug in the workplace, caught some criticism.
Here’s the awesome thing though. You totally saw what Rose Eveleth - Atlantic tech writer meant. You apologised and the world kept turning. Except it kinda didn’t.
What happened was a frenzied attack of the woman who made the comment, and feminism in general. I don’t know how many abusive threats Eveleth has received so far, but it’s a lot. And some of those include death wishes and sexist slurs. I mean, there is nothing like a sexist death wish to prove to women that they don’t need feminism anymore.
There are also some shitty memes going around, one comparing protest against rape to your shirt, and calling out feminists as hypocrites. Or the one that says sexism and objectification shouldn't count because SCIENCE (don’t get me started on how people in positions of power and subjective worth escape criticism and even prosecution because of their positions of power and subjective worth). I think it’s important to remember that this is only outrageous to the world at large because it’s a man (you) falling under scrutiny for fashion choices. This happens to women every day, in every career. You could say it happens to guys too (it probably does) but check out this guy.
I don’t hold you responsible for this; in fact I have sympathy that a lot of this vitriol is being spread in your name and in your defence. It must really suck to be associated with an attack on an individual woman and the movement which strives to stop these attacks from happening. Feminism wants to be standing right there with you, in awe at the song of a comet. So listen to us when we say, we see you for your worth, see us for ours – and wear your shirt on a different day.
Tags: Matt Taylor, Rosetta Project, clothing, sexism, feminism, Rose Eveleth
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.