There has been a bit of a twitterstorm over the shirt worn by one of the scientists, Matt Taylor, on the team that landed the satellite on the comet. It wasn’t the kind of shirt I would wear personally, but I have to say it didn’t look all that especially offensive. If I am honest, my main reaction was to think that it would be nice to achieve something significant enough that people actually care what you are wearing. I was also struck by a detail of the story. (Caveat – I read this on Twitter so it could be fantasy.) Apparently the shirt was custom made for him by the wife of his tattoo artist, who gave it to him as a present. It was a reflection of how she saw him, and as such was probably rather special. I am not surprised then that he choose to wear it on the television for his big moment.
I know a lot of scientists and they come in all shapes, sizes and personality types. I have to say that Dr Taylor does remind me of some people I know who are perhaps better at the science than they are at judging social norms. I really wouldn’t want to change them. I have also noticed that being oblivious to other people’s feelings doesn’t stop them being upset by things that go wrong. So I feel sorry for the guy in the centre of all this, even though I wonder if this is perhaps not the first time he has done something dozy that a less intelligent person would have seen coming.
But there are two sides to every argument and one suggestion was that a shirt with a cartoon of a scantily clad woman on would be discouraging to women and put them off a career in science. Enormous strides have been made in getting more women into science over my lifetime. I went to an all boys school and then at the end of the seventies started working in a laboratory which was very nearly 100% male. I also did a day release diploma in chemistry where one single female bravely turned up amongst about 25 men. I don’t think any of the rest of us had any idea of how a woman could even have got there. I wish I had asked her.
But things have changed a heck of a lot since then. Most science labs are now full of women and there are certainly plenty of women in cosmetic science. It is probably now a majority female activity under the age of about 45. This is really as it should be. Women make up 95% of the market for cosmetics so it only makes sense that they would have a better insight into what constitutes a great product. I think I can honestly say that there is very little if any sexism in the world of cosmetic science. The current and the most recent presidents of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists here in the UK have both been women, but I don’t think that this fact has even registered with anyone. They were just the people who seemed right for the job.
I can’t imagine the women I know in the cosmetic industry being put off by a slightly tasteless shirt.
Having said all that I think that there is still a barrier to women going into science and technology. It is still seen as something that is more male than female. And there is still a tendency for women not to want to appear bright and to feel more uncomfortable pushing themselves forward. This has the effect of discouraging them from science, but also from other roles. I think that the negativity suffered by Dr Taylor in this instance is more likely to put off women, and indeed a lot of men as well, than his shirt did.