New front in the War on Women: tacky shirts?

Ed: Jazz first noticed this story at CNN, which celebrated the technological marvel of the landing of a probe on a comet by reporting on … feminist critique of techno-geek fashion. Matt Taylor’s choice of casual shirt, a lurid fantasy montage of scantily-clad women, raised eyebrows more than the scientific feat did for some:

While the world watched the historic landing of a space probe on a comet 310 million miles from Earth, some were distracted by what was happening closer to home.

Rosetta Project scientist Matt Taylor caused a bit of a firestorm with his choice of fashion during the European Space Agency’s live stream of Wednesday’s Philae landing. Taylor initially sported a shirt featuring women in lingerie, possibly not the wisest choice of attire given all of the discussion surrounding the challenges for women in the tech and science fields.

That prompted a few tweets from the ranks of feminists that found the terrain too hostile for double-X life:

S. E. Smith at XOJane distilled the criticism succinctly:

The people who were upset by it weren’t just those silly oversensitive feminists who can’t take a joke. Scientists from all perspectives were unimpressed with the shirt, both on professional grounds and gendered ones.

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 [science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines].

Ironically, Taylor had come under criticism earlier for his expansive tattoos, CNN noted. He responded that his colleagues judge people by their work and not their looks, an ideal to which feminists claim to aspire as well:

During a recent Wall Street Journal Facebook Q&A, Taylor was asked about whether tattooed men can achieve greatness and said, “The people I work with don’t judge me by my looks but only by the work I have done and can do. Simple.”

Smith called the shirt an example of the “microaggressions” women face in STEM fields. If so, it’s pretty darned micro. If all it takes is a tacky shirt to discourage one’s ambitions, then that’s more of an argument for treating women as dainty flowers who require paternalistic protection at all times. The Kardashian culture alone would drive such drooping lilies from the Internet, especially this week. I don’t think women are that weak, though, and none of the women I know would let a shirt like that keep them from their dreams. If tacky shirts are all that we have left to debate, then I’d say that the real issues of gender equality have all been solved, and it’s time to move on.

However. I’m still trying to figure out what went through the minds of Taylor and his supervisors when they thought it would be a good idea to appear on camera in that shirt, or that it was appropriate for a professional office setting. That might be appropriate for a bouncer in a strip club, but not in an office environment. Speaking as someone with nearly 20 years of supervisory and management experience in an office setting, it’s a distraction, as this coverage has proven. It also strongly suggests that Taylor has poor judgment skills, especially in respect for his co-workers, and frankly looks like he’s a case of arrested development in adolescence. That doesn’t reflect well on the organization, especially at a moment when the eyes of the world were on it for something spectacular.

My advice: Grow up. Jazz, what do you think?

Jazz: You know, it would be the easiest thing in the world to throw Taylor under the bus here (after dismissing the feminist fauxrage over the shirt) but I’m not entirely sure. In a previous life, Ed was the manager of a call center. I was once responsible for managing a team of writers and content developers servicing some Fortune 50 clients. In either of those environments, if one of our guys showed up for work dressed like that they would be sent home. If it happened repeatedly, they would probably be out of a job after some attempts at corrective career counseling. That’s a given in most professional workplaces.

Looking around that control room though, this seems to be a different environment. This is a bunch of geeks. I have occasion to mix with some similar folks in the computer geek arena and similar fields. Standards differ, to say the least. Without knowing what the normal routine is in the ESA headquarters it’s hard to say just how unusual that shirt was. I do know some guys in the gaming community (read: Dungeons and Dragons or MMORPG players) who wear similar clothing. Would I advise wearing it to work? No. But then, I’m a stodgy dude who wears Dockers and golf shirts for casual work environments, so what do I know?

It wasn’t the most flattering shirt in history to be sure, but Ed is right about one thing. If that’s enough to scare you out of your field of study (absent any amplifying comments or actions by your coworkers) then you’ll probably have a tough time in the world.

Ed: I actually don’t have a problem with casual dress work environments, with jeans and tee shirts, as long as they aren’t inappropriate for a professional environment. Most of the time, the call centers I ran had a casual-dress standard — unless we had customers visiting, or on the rare occasion that a news crew came over to videotape us at work.  The latter never actually happened, but if it had, I would have asked people to dress appropriately, and by appropriately I would have meant not wearing your MMORPG pajamas to work. And I wouldn’t have hesitated to send that person home and docked his pay had he shown up in that shirt even under normal circumstances.

In his comment about his tattoos, Taylor says he wants to be judged by his work and not his appearance, but how he dresses sends a signal about how he sees his work, his co-workers, and his organization. I’m glad that he takes joy in his work; it’s important work and will benefit many, many people. Failing to recognize that suggests that Taylor needs to learn a little about respect for others, and perhaps not be so wrapped up in himself, as well as in drawings of half-naked women.

Jazz: The breaking point, to me, is the cameras. No matter how much of a free spirit you are, if you know that the entire planet is going to be watching your workplace on a given day, you put in the extra effort. It’s rather hard to believe that Taylor showed up at work yesterday morning and was like, “Holy crap! Is that today?” I mean, they were planning this for ten years. So, yeah… it was a bad choice.

My whole point was that, on a normal day when these guys are laboring away in some obscure geek cave and nobody outside the building knows their name, that shirt might actually be something that happens. I’ve seen crazier stuff.