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November 24, 2014

The Shirt

Okay, I'm going to weigh in on this #shirtstorm thing. I've been fortunate enough to miss much of the coverage and complaints, but wanted to put in my two cents on a few things that I haven't seen directly commented on yet.

1) Extremists.
No, the shirt-wearer shouldn't get fired, and no, people who spoke out about the shirt shouldn't die over it. Extremist views in this case are, as with most things, just that—extreme. And they probably only represent a small (vocal) minority of the population. I think we should mainly be concerned with the broad grey area between the extremes. In this area lies people who think maybe this shirt isn't a big deal, and don't understand the big fuss, but maybe only because they haven't seen the subtleties in this case and will probably be open to them when presented with a different perspective. So, here's mine.

2) It's just a shirt.
I've seen a few good pieces talking about how this didn't happen in a vacuum, so I don't need to go into the "right, maybe it's just a shirt, but it does send a message and these things add up." Check out Phil Plait's Slate piece about Casual Sexism.

But there are still few points I wanted to make here:
- If you're a man, you may not be able to imagine how this imagery would affect you in the workplace as a woman. Ask a few female friends how they feel about it. Have a conversation. Make sure you and they see the shirt up close enough to see what's actually on it.
- Try picturing the shirt as being worn by a woman, or a shirt of sexualized, scantily clad men being worn by a woman, or by this same man, and see if you feel differently about it. Try picturing the man wearing a shirt patterned with dogs humping. Professional? Why not? In the workplace, would it make you uncomfortable? What if your daughter was working with him (or whomever)?
- I really think this kind of imagery and message affects us subconsciously, so even if you think it's no big deal, it may be sending messages that you're unaware of. Not that it's hocus-pocus, but it sends messages that you just may not be aware that you or other people seeing the imagery are processing. So on the surface, even if the shirt (or similar imagery in the workplace or, for that matter, in public) seems benign, it may be affecting us in ways we're not measuring. And yes, this stuff does add up.

3) Equal does not mean the same.
We're all different. I mentioned a few posts back when talking about the *lack* of imagery of women in science that I was particularly attracted to geology because it was male dominated. There are a few reasons for this. Ego has something to do with it, but, tied to that, so does breaking stereotypes. I saw myself as kind of a stereotype superhero, chinking away at these societally held beliefs that women weren't strong or capable or rugged—bam! bam! bam! But.... not everyone is like me. And that's not to glorify myself, it's to say that if we want to get women of all types into STEM fields, and into leadership positions across the workplace world, we can't just assume that these jabs are going to make women more adamant about taking this guy's job, as a friend of mine suggested. Some, they will. But we'll also lose some to this stuff. Maybe even most.

4) It's not about the shirt.
#shirtstorm is not really about whether this guy in this one circumstance was appropriate in doing so. It's not about whether he should be fired or not, or whether ESA is a bad place to work, or overshadowing the fact that they landed on a comet (there's still plenty of press about that and still plenty of reasons to be excited. In my view, these are two different stories). This is about this kind of imagery in general and the effect it has on the people it portrays (or doesn't). It's about how we view this as a society. Do we think this *type* of thing is okay? What bothers me is not that this guy wore this shirt, but that we can't across the board recognize that it was inappropriate, and why. But hopefully this is spurring conversations within that grey area—the segment of our population, like myself, not at the extremes. Hopefully we can get to the point where we start to teach and learn that we need to do better, for everyone's sake.

* * *

I've mostly read moderate, well thought out pieces about #shirtstorm/#shirtgate. Here are some of my favorite excerpts.

From Infactorium, a word on losing "freedoms":
"When people (near-universally young men) start complaining about these losses of freedom I have to sigh and shake my head. We all give up things to make society better. We give up our right to take things by force. We give up our right to drive on the wrong side of the road."

Right, and ultimately these trade-offs make for a better living environment.

From the American Astronomical Society's statement on this whole thing:
"The AAS has a clear anti-harassment policy, which prohibits “verbal comments or physical actions of a sexual nature” and “a display of sexually suggestive objects or pictures.” Had the offending images appeared and comments been made under the auspices of the AAS, they would be in clear violation of our policy."

Why? (Me asking.) Because:

"As a professional society, the AAS must provide an environment that encourages the free expression and exchange of scientific ideas. In pursuit of that environment, the AAS is committed to the philosophy of equality of opportunity and treatment for all members, regardless of [list here...] or any other reason not related to scientific merit." [My emphasis.]

I love that last part. I mean, of course! So don't wear a shirt or use imagery that disrespectfully targets part of the population. On the flip side, *do* be proactive in utilizing positive and relevant imagery of a diverse population. Show role models. Be a role model. This issue isn't limited to women, it's about workplace dynamics and diversity in general. What shirt would you wear?

Posted by beth at 12:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack