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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.