Institutional problem or passing Shirtstorm?

Institutional problem or passing Shirtstorm?

posted in: Blog, Career | 0

by Guest Blogger

If there was institutional sexism within the tech industry, what would it look like? Some gender diversity campaigns rolled out in the industry (often by men) ignore or dismiss older women’s feedback, however eloquent, reasonable, or strongly expressed it may be. The main focus of these campaigns often appears to be a quest for an ever changing stream of more new, compliant younger women to make the workforce look artificially vibrant and diverse thus alienating half of the gender workforce it is supposed to support.

It is not clear if the lack of a strong female voice from communities is peculiarly a national problem but the standing of women in our society generally, does not appear to have a high currency value with women themselves. Younger women also appear to worry that they won’t be attractive to men if they appear supportive of a feminist agenda. In mixed company I have often heard women say “I think women have gone a bit too far with the feminism thing”. I have never heard a woman say this when it’s just women in the room. Without strong female leaders in society, it is difficult to break the norms or stereotypes for women who appear to need a strong acceptance by their local community:  a community which may not contain or desire strong female leadership at all.

Recently a much respected project scientist turned up to a very important historical space event and completely ignored the dress code. People apparently asked him to change, but he had a very high standing on the project and he was allowed to address the world’s cameras with a shirt adorned by nude women.

There was a lot of criticism from the scientific community, led mainly on Twitter by female scientists and engineers.  There was also much criticism from some key male scientists and engineers that have standing in the community. The criticism was not about his dress sense but about the message conveyed by broadcasting a shirt objectifying women at the time of a major scientific event.  This scientist had used the world stage to send a message to women and girls everywhere: that real men did science and these men like their women in a state of undress sprawled across a car bonnet, not standing next to them as fellow scientists.

Some parts of the scientific community and the general public were genuinely appalled with what is probably a glimpse of the real face of the less attractive side of our science industry.  Yet many people didn’t think there was a problem.  Some people thought he had a right to wear what he liked, and women (and the men) who protested were being over-sensitive and politically correct. Many of the women that expressed their concern over the shirt were “trolled” and strongly abused by twitter users (many of the trolls were women themselves). Some national newspapers and important society figures condemned women for expressing a view that had forced an important scientist to give a tearful apology.

For those educating and encouraging future scientists and engineers, the explanations seem empty.  Teachers were upset that students who  had tuned into the live feed, had to see science presented in this way.  Scientists and engineers involved in outreach and who work on explaining that tech and science is a good place for women, felt betrayed by the scientific establishment. This shirt was worn for an interview on the BBC and broadcast to a massive, global audience.  This shirt has been displayed at the highest European Institution.  These acts have made the wearing of such a shirt acceptable and given it legitimacy.  The consequence is females are wondering whether they really are welcome into the scientific community and whether they will be taken seriously for their work.

Like any storm, this “Shirtstorm” will blow over but I do believe that just like there was a time when we had never landed on a comet, there was a time when we could put a world class scientist in front of the camera and not care about whether his clothes are sending the appropriate message to women about their place in the science and tech industries. Both these times have passed.

What do you think about Shirtstorm? Share your comments below – we always want to hear what you have to say.


Guest  Blog written by a female who has worked in the aerospace industry for more than 14 years.


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