Internet outrage seems to be something that is so typical these days and it seems to be getting worse. Everyone is shouting their agendas. Full disclosure: I consider myself a feminist, I’m pro-equality for both genders and I don’t like gender stereotyping (Eg. women can’t code, boys don’t cry, etc.).
Because of the current inequity, I think it is important that we encourage women into STEM jobs. So when I saw that a number of people went nuts over Matt Taylor talking about the Rosetta mission landing a probe on a comet while wearing this shirt, I understood but felt it was overblown. His coming out and speaking while wearing this shirt led many to say things like: “It’s because of things like this women don’t go into STEM.” I can see the point, sure. I can even agree that there is a problem with these jobs being seen as exclusive for men, and this shirt glorifying the sexualization of the female form – tells women to stay away – they are not thought of for their minds and ability – but for their boobs and butts.
Later after lots of internet vitriol, Matt tearfully apologized for his lack of insight. He should not have drawn so much outrage for being a normal, doo-de-doop guy, who happens to also be a scientist that was broadcast all over the world. I’d heard that the shirt was a birthday present. This 9Gag.com post mentions it. The paragraph in that picture that says:
The fact that a scientist of any gender, but especially a man, would think it’s a good idea to wear a shirt covered in naked women while representing a major space agency and a significant research project is appalling; and clearly he had no idea that he was engaging in exactly the kind of casual sexism that drives women away from STEM
was written by S.E. Smith in an article on XOJane. It is sadly correct. It reminds us that this instance is a symptom of a larger, systemic problem and people… well they’re people. They make mistakes and live in their paradigms – we all do. I don’t know of anyone (very much including myself) who wasn’t blindsided by their own hypocrisy at some point in their lives and more than likely it will happen again. Give this poor dude a break. He does not deserve your hate, the system does.
Poor Matt really did have no idea that he was sending out the wrong message. He probably put on the shirt thinking of his good friend that made it for him. He didn’t mean anything by it — but let all space scientists from henceforth take their “I’m going to be announcing cool space science stuff” fashion tips from Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Let all your shirts have stars and galaxies… rockets and well… space stuff.
I have to admit that the only thought in my head when I saw Matt was that no person anywhere should wear a shirt that clashes with their arms. No, I did not excuse him for this fashion atrocity just because he was a man. But a fashion faux pas is not a big deal in the scheme of things.
I don’t think Matt is a bad person. I don’t think that Matt is sexist. I do think that Matt just was thinking more about what he was going to say (which is tremendously important) than what he was wearing and what it would say. And while that 9gag post is right — that a single shirt should not drive someone away from science — it is not the single shirt that does it. It is the constant drip, drip, drip of every day semi-sexist encounters. One by itself is easy to handle, but years of casual sexism do build up and impact one’s psyche, leading to anger and resentment – not always knowing or understanding why you feel that way. We can and should do better.
Then there’s the horribleness that is #GamerGate, but that’s another post for another day.
Speaking of boobs and butts… There’s the whole outrage over Kim Kardashian and her butt. Me, I’m rolling my eyes. I disliked the Kardashians the first time I heard about them for the same reason I don’t like Paris Hilton: they are primarily famous for being famous. If someone is to reach celebrity status, it should be for a specific reason besides the fact that they are the (sometimes troubled) son or daughter of someone rich or famous or whatever. They should achieve their fame and fortune based on their own merits. Though my former socialite mother would remind me that the children of the rich and powerful have always been fodder for the gossip columns. (This is why our actions must always be proper – and we must never bring shame to the family name.)
What surprised me the other day is that I learned KK had an app called “Hollywood” and it is worth a lot of money. Forbes wrote about it. The makers made a smart move in partnering with her, as she seems like a perfect fit. She didn’t have to take an active role in it – but she did, helping the designers come up with content. Of course, she wouldn’t have been asked to be part of it if she weren’t the media attention seeker she was raised to be. I don’t want to discourage her if she wants to learn actual programming, and contribution is a good thing — but no one would think of Kim as a computer engineer… unless you were Mattel, apparently.
So Mattel and Barbie bring us this latest women in STEM travesty — Barbie – I can be… A Computer Engineer. From the earlier mentioned Forbes article, it’s plain that no one considers Kim Kardashian a computer engineer. What’s funny is in this “I can be” book — Barbie is as much a computer engineer as good ol’ Kim. Pamela Ribbon has written a fantastic article about the book. She totally nails it when she mentions that this book is basically “Barbie – I can be… an Actress” upside down – which it both literally and figuratively is. Barbie needs tons of help to be a computer engineer and no help being an actress. Sigh. This is part of why women aren’t going into STEM jobs. They are constantly being told they just can’t do it or it is not for them. Or that it’s really hard and it’s best to let the boys do it for you.
Fortunately there are clever people fixing this problem with this fun website: Feminist Hacker Barbie. Thanks to that website we now have the picture above. And there’s this article about how someone re-wrote the book to be much more women in STEM friendly. I LOVE it.
And Barbie on Facebook issued this statement by the end of day about that book:
The Mary Sue points out that “Amazon lists the paperback publication date for the I can Be A Computer Engineer Barbie book as 2013 (though the accompanying doll is from 2010…” They are willing to give the brand the benefit of the doubt. And interestingly enough, TechCrunch reported that Mattel also pulled the book from Amazon later that day.
I think part of the reason I talk/think/read about women in STEM so much is that I was discouraged by my parents from getting into STEM. I remember being young and interested in animals, and as children do, think about their interests and what careers they could lead to. I remember once thinking out loud about becoming a zoologist. What was said? “Ooo honey, you aren’t so good at math, maybe you should consider doing something else.” That could have been phrased better – like: “If science interests you, you will want to develop your math skills. Your father (the engineer) can help you.” My technical aptitudes were never discovered until I was 17 and took aptitude testing at Johnson O’Conner Human Engineering Labs. If I had not gone there, I probably wouldn’t know that I have excellent spatial reasoning, or that I have good logic skills. These technical aptitudes are part of what make me a capable web designer and developer today.
In this case I think it had a lot to do with my gender, the generation of my parents and my mother’s personal ambitions for her children. At the end of her life, my mother still had no understanding of the kind of work I did. Still I would like to think that if they saw me in my life now, doing the things that I do, they’d be pleased (even if they don’t like/get/understand computers and the internet).
I think it is important to have all people live up to their potential and that potential can be anything. It should not be limited based upon the stereotype of sex, gender, or race. It should be up to the individual to find what they excel at and make it and themselves better.
So I started this whole thing off with internet outrage — we spend a lot of time being outraged about things that are well beyond our individual control. Sure the ESA Scientist could have picked a better shirt. Sure it’s dumb that there was so much energy and effort over (OMG) a grown woman’s naked butt. Plenty of outrage (and rightly so) over Barbie’s “I can be a Computer Engineer” farce. But the question I have is — what do we get for shouting angrily from the rooftops?
Generally, not much. In this case we got a tearful apology from a well-meaning scientist (who really should not have had to apologize in the first place), A woman who will keep doing whatever the heck she wants (which is both a good and bad thing — good on ya Kim, that you don’t listen to the haters – even if you do perpetuate a negative stereotype), and a horrible, degrading book being pulled from the shelves.
But I think with calm, consistent, reasoned voices we can advocate the change we want to see. It may take a while, it may not be as cathartic or satisfying as a good rage fest, but it will be healthier and lead to longer and more sustainable change.