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'Shirtstorm' and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it's clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.
(Photo: turatti/Flickr)

(Photo: turatti/Flickr)

Last week, the world watched as a team at the European Space Agency landed the first spaceship on a comet. During the landing, a television crew interviewed one of the team's lead scientists, Dr. Matthew Taylor. Taylor looked like a classic, non-conformist scientist, enthusiastically explaining the tricky mission details while waving his tattoo-covered arms and wearing what seemed like a gaudy Hawaiian shirt. But those who looked closely at the shirt came away with a different impression of Taylor, because it was covered with drawings of lightly-clad and sexually posed women. Several science journalists called out the shirt on Twitter, provoking a discussion about sexism in science that was quickly labeled "Shirtstorm." (Shirtstorm also generated a vile response from certain corners of the Internet, including rape threats against women who criticized Taylor—proving once again that women aren't welcome on the Internet.)

Two days after the incident, Taylor issued a tearful apology and admitted that he made a mistake. As surprising as it may sound, he seems to have not realized that his shirt would be offensive. The episode highlights the paradox of sexism in science: Scientists take pride in being part of a community that is supposedly open and meritocratic—so why is sexism in science so hard to beat?

Too much emphasis on autonomy leaves a lot of room for bias to seep in.

Nobody doubts that science has a gender gap problem. Women are underrepresented on science faculties, and on average, they earn less than men. The lack of women among professional scientists is terrible for several reasons: It leads to the neglect of research on issues specifically relevant to women, and it unjustifiably prevents a large number of talented people from making important contributions. That the gender gap exists and needs to be closed is uncontroversial; what causes the gap is not.

IN THE CASE OF Shirtstorm, one obvious problem is a lack of professionalism. Unlike other professionals such as teachers, physicians, and lawyers, scientists don't have many codified expectations of dress and behavior. They are notoriously causal in the lab, which partly explains why neither Taylor nor, apparently, any other senior person at the ESA realized it was a bad idea to wear such a shirt to work on a day when television cameras were present—or on any other day, period. As a graduate student, I wore an offensive T-shirt to the lab. My wife bought it for me from a Utah brewery, and it carried the eyebrow-raising label for Polygamy Porter. To me the shirt was a joke, but it was soon clear that wearing it to work was a mistake—one I wouldn't have made if I didn't dress so casually in the lab.

The lack of clear professional standards in the lab stems from the fact that one of the most highly prized values in science is autonomy. Academics in general and scientists in particular have high confidence in their own abilities to make good judgments, without being given explicit standards by some higher authority. But clearly that confidence is sometimes misplaced, and too much emphasis on autonomy leaves a lot of room for bias to seep in. There is clear evidence that scientists often don't make good judgments when it comes to gender.

For example, a 2012 study, conducted by a team of researchers at Yale University, asked male and female science faculty from top research universities to rate the resume of an undergraduate science student. The resume was created by the researchers and given either a male or female name. The study participants thought they were offering feedback to a real student, and the results showed clear evidence of bias: Both male and female professors gave higher ratings to the male version of the resume.

The lack of women among professional scientists is terrible for several reasons: It leads to the neglect of research on issues specifically relevant to women, and it unjustifiably prevents a large number of talented people from making important contributions.

BUT DO THESE KINDS of results really explain science’s gender gap? According to Cornell psychologists Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, the answer is no. In an op-ed published less than two weeks before Shirtstorm, they argued that to call academic science sexist is to misdiagnose the disease. "There’s no argument that, until recently, universities deserved their reputations as bastions of male privilege and outright sexism," they wrote. "But times have changed." Pointing to a paper they recently co-authored with two economists, Williams and Ceci argued that, while studies using made-up resumes show bias, when you look at the actual hiring data the picture looks much better—particularly if you compare men and women who are at the same stage in their careers. Relative to men in similar positions, women "are more likely to receive hiring offers, are paid roughly the same (in 14 of 16 comparisons across the eight fields), are generally tenured and promoted at the same rate (except in economics), remain in their fields at roughly the same rate, have their grants funded and articles accepted as often and are about as satisfied with their jobs."

To explain the gender gap we need to look beyond academia, at the culture at large. Williams and Ceci present evidence that boys and girls already differ in their attitudes toward math and science by the time they are in kindergarten. These differences become more entrenched as kids get older. Crucially, they argue that this trend isn't necessarily innate—it varies across countries and eras, and therefore we can change it. Paradoxically, we might be making things worse by painting scientific institutions as pervasively sexist and thereby discouraging young women from considering science as a career.

The report by Williams and Ceci has some genuinely good news, but not everyone is convinced that we should draw such optimistic conclusions. Hiring and promotion are only one part of the story. A survey published this summer found that sexual harassment and even assault are widely experienced by women who participate in fieldwork; such experiences will inevitably affect women's lives and the decisions they make about their careers.

Given the blatantly sexist culture of academic science only a few decades ago, it would be surprising if we'd managed to effectively eliminate sexism altogether. Times have changed for the better, and we should celebrate that, but Shirtstorm shows the discussion is far from over.