Shirts, Science Communication, and Why Appearances Can Be Important

That Shirt

On Nov. 12, a robot launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) about ten years ago landed on a comet approximately 300 million miles away. Which is (literally) awesome. But this blog is about science communication, so I want to talk about a shirt.

One of the ESA staffers prominently featured in coverage of the landing was Matt Taylor, who is head scientist on the project. Taylor is an intelligent guy, but he made the unfortunate decision to wear a shirt covered with pictures of scantily clad women for his broadcast interviews.

This highlighted longstanding concerns that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields are not welcoming to women, and angered/disappointed/annoyed a lot of people (including me). A number of hashtags devoted to discussing the issue quickly popped up on Twitter, including #ThatShirt, #ShirtGate and #ShirtStorm.

This, in turn, led to crude, violent and threatening messages being sent to folks who raised concerns about the shirt – as well as an apology from Taylor himself.

Because I think a lot about various practical aspects of science communication, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. And there are (at least) two very real reasons that we should be talking about “that shirt.”

Reason One

First, the clothes that we wear say something about us. That is why you will rarely see a professional banker wearing a tie-dyed shirt in his office, or a corporate attorney wearing motorcycle leathers when she’s in the courtroom.

And, if you’re wearing a shirt covered in scantily clad ladies, you are (intentionally or obliviously) going to make a lot of women uncomfortable. If you want to wear that shirt at the pub on Saturday, that’s your business. But when you wear the same shirt while acting in a professional capacity, it reflects poorly on your entire organization. (The fact that no one in the ESA told Taylor to change his shirt amazes me.) What’s more, in many countries it is actually illegal to do things that create an uncomfortable work environment for others.

There’s a fair amount of literature that’s relevant here – like this and this and this (hat tip to Katie Hinde for sharing these) – for those who want to delve deeper into the subject.

Reason Two

In general, researchers who are being interviewed about their work want the focus to be on what they’ve accomplished – like landing a craft on a comet. In fact, many people have lambasted folks for criticizing Taylor’s shirt, saying that such criticism distracts from the ESA’s accomplishment.

They are right that the shirt has been a distraction. However, the fault lies not with the critics but with the decision to wear the shirt in the first place.

If you want the focus to be on your work, you have to make decisions about how you present yourself. I own a threadbare shirt that I got at a Descendents concert years ago. I wear it around the house all the time. But I don’t wear it for TV interviews or public speaking engagements, because I want the focus to be on what I have to say and not on my fondness for a ratty old T-shirt featuring a punk band.

Context is important. It’s perfectly acceptable for a banker to wear a tie-dyed T-shirt at a concert or on a trip to the store. But it would seem unprofessional for the same banker to wear a tie-dyed shirt when negotiating a business loan on behalf of a financial institution.

Does this mean that scientists should wear three-piece suits when speaking publicly? No. Nor does it mean that scientists should wear white lab coats all the time. Scientists are people, not automatons devoid of personality. But it does mean you should steer clear of clothes that distract from what you’re trying to communicate or that could reasonably be expected to offend a significant segment of your audience. No shirts with naked ladies on them, for example.

This may seem shallow, but it’s not. It’s practical advice for communicating effectively.

Conclusion

If you are a researcher who wants people to be drawn to science, and wants as many people as possible to consider careers in STEM, and wants people to take scientists seriously, then you have to think about how you are perceived. You will never have full control over this – there are plenty of people out there who will happily dismiss you because you don’t look like they do. But you do have control over what you wear. And if people are talking about your shirt, you should have worn something else.

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10 thoughts on “Shirts, Science Communication, and Why Appearances Can Be Important

  1. Nice article, and I generally agree with you. Especially the part about such a shirt being a distraction. However, part of me wants to say that scientists who are in the spotlight, and who are being observed by a mainstream audience, should go out of their way to be themselves and where tastefully trendy clothes (or maybe I should say stylish clothes), which could even include t-shirts like a rock star might wear (even with race-y themes occasionally). People see scientists as very stiff, sterile types who don’t lead colorful lives or have hobbies that relate to culture and the arts. It would be great for that perception to change, and that would require, in part, people with ‘loud’ personalities and equally as loud clothes, so long as the graphics aren’t offensive… In regards to the specific incident mentioned above- He made a decision I would not have, but given my experience with running science social media pages I’ve found that stupid people on the web find a way to make a mountain out of a mole hill when it comes to anything that even mentions something gender-related. These people are usually not scientists, but very opinionated science enthusiasts. For example, I posted a meme to my Facebook page (Science Is Sexy- >10,000 followers) which had a picture of Einstein at a blackboard filled with equations and the caption said “…and I still don’t understand women”. It seemed to be doing well, gathering dozens of likes in just 10 mins, but then someone came along and commented about it being sexist. Then, all of a sudden a bunch of people started liking his comment and responding similarly. I visited another very popular science page and someone had posted the same meme with no bad reactions, and many good ones, to a science crowd of hundreds of thousands. It seems that when one person makes a ridiculous accusation, there is some psychologically-driven internet behavior that makes others latch on to it, no matter how absurd. I think this may have been the case with the shirt. To go back to my personal experience- after seeing some of those comments, I found an article where Stephen Hawking makes the same joke, saying “Women are harder for him to understand than physics”. So I linked this in a reply comment beneath the negative ones, and no one seemed to care that Stephen Hawking said the same thing! They just went on saying it was sexist, although I doubt one person would say this had Stephen Hawking posted it on his page. I apologize for the rant, but a very critical point is that scientists shouldn’t be afraid to be colorful, quirky, and provocative in their personal style, whether it offends some or not. Had a rockstar or movie celebrity wore that same shirt, not one person would have mentioned it negatively. Scientists need to be looked at like rock stars and celebrities, since they are just as cool and unique (usually). My favorite Richard Dawkins quote is “Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off”.

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  2. Matt Shipman

    You’re right that scientists should not completely stifle their personalities. I’ve even written about the importance of efforts that portray scientists as well-rounded people (rather than automatons devoid of personality – if I can quote myself from the above post). But there’s a difference between wearing clothes that are tastefully trendy or stylish and wearing clothes that, if I can quote myself again, “could reasonably be expected to offend a significant segment of your audience.” And, frankly, if one is unclear on whether something is offensive, err on the side of caution.

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  3. Paige Brown

    Thank you for writing this, Matt. I tried tweeting my thoughts about the Shirt today, and received far more “trolling” tweets than I have EVER experienced in the past. It definitely seems this incident created strong emotions on both sides. Frustrating.

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  4. Joe Standage

    It depends on your motivations. If your motivation is to be inclusive and project an image then yes, image by definition matters.
    If it’s to do science, then it doesn’t. Science got along really, really well before everyone started worrying about who was doing science.
    The people who would be so offended by such a shirt add nothing of value to, well, anything. If the choice is this guy being happy doing science wearing a shirt he thinks is cool and 1 million people howling in outrage, I pick his wishes every time.

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  5. Wrong, Joe. Science suffered for years because it was the province of an elite few. Those who had the wealth and social capital to pursue it (who were, almost exclusively, middle to upper class white guys). Being inclusive is important, because think of what can be accomplished if we tap into the intellectual resources of men AND women, whether they’re white, black, hispanic, asian, whatever. It’s not about lowering the bar, it’s about opening the door. And by saying you’d rather cater to one person’s whimsy than acknowledge the serious concerns of one million other people, it’s pretty clear you’re one of the people blocking the door. No one wants to take anything away from you, we just want you to get out of the way.

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  6. My main problem with him wearing that shirt is not because it makes me as a woman uncomfortable but it was unprofessional.
    It was publicly inappropriate to wear that shirt and make so many casually sexist comments about the mission on the stream.
    Historical space events like this are VERY often watched by school children – elementary, middle & high school ages.
    That shirt & his comments were insensitive to the fact that youth would probably be tuning in.
    Science outreach and communication need to be perceptive of our audiences and demonstrating decorum for greatest common denominator should be the first thing we consider.

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  8. Catherine

    I wonder why they weren’t as prepared for this as a sports team is when it wins a championship. Everyone could have worn tee shirts or polos with the project logo right on the front the same way a winning team is immediately greeted with shirts and hats, to the point that I get the urge to leap into the television and clip off all the hangtags myself because that bugs me to no end!

    They could even have links where people could buy the shirts themselves and have the funding go to science scholarships or help for science programs in schools or some such thing. People will buy anything if you put it on a shirt and they think it’s cool. What a missed opportunity.

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