It is an incredible day for science when a tiny robot manages to land on a comet. It is an irritating day for science when that gets overshadowed by a poor wardrobe choice. It is a good day for science when that mistake is quickly addressed, and even better when it results in a fantastic new shirt design.

Philae launched from Rosetta to land on a comet (left), while its Project Scientist distracted the celebrations with a poor fashion choice (right). Images credit ESA, Matt Taylor.

The science news cycle is understandably dominated by the Rosetta mission’s unbelievable achievement of successfully sending the Philae lander down to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Figuring out that the lander went through a series of high bounces before smacking down on its side was rightly the focus for European Space Agency’s scientists, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the most unexpected thing to happen involving Project Scientist Matt Taylor, the science lead of the Rosetta mission.

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Taylor being interviewed during the Philae landing event. Screenshot from Nature news coverage.

Taylor’s wardrobe choice for the day was a colourful short-sleeved button-up shirt festooned with scantily-clad women and guns. As the mission’s lead scientist, Taylor participated in a series of media interviews about Rosetta, appeared on the live feed, and was otherwise a highly visible presence. His shirt did not go unnoticed.

Instead of presenting a charmingly alternative aesthetic reinforcing the concept that anyone can do science, Taylor’s shirt derailed the Rosetta mission livefeed into NSFW, undercut the campaign encouraging schools to show the feed during class, and alienated people who don’t embrace the objectification of women. This didn’t come across as a dash of cheekiness; it came across as either outright trolling, or breathtaking obliviousness.

The shirt is a birthday present sewn by Taylor’s friend from sexy Bond girl pin-up fabric. Image credit: Alexander Henry

Within hours, articles were popping up explaining why the shirt was sexist and inappropriate work attire. Hashtags emerged to criticize the shirt, death threats were made by those defending the shirt, and the whole mess derailed into exactly the kind of internet-dogpile that accompanies every discussion of sexism.

The shirt was a bad choice. It’s an example of microaggression and fostering a hostile work environment. While just a shirt, it’s part of the long line of, “It’s just...” that directly and indirectly make it unnecessarily painful to work as a woman in science. Feminism and sexism, particularly for women working in science, mathematics, engineering or technology, have been frequent topics in the news cycle the past few years. It’s not a shocking concept that a male scientist in a position of authority wearing clothing that blatantly objectifies women would ruffle feathers. It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to women in science, but it is still not acceptable.

Taylor’s tattoo of Philae safely landing on the comet is a far more inclusive method of demonstrating that people from all walks of life and aesthetic sensibilities may be scientists. Screenshot from Nature news coverage.

Assumably either Taylor or someone else at ESA noticed the overwhelmingly negative reaction the shirt was provoking, and took action. The next time he was in front of a camera, Taylor was in a European Space Agency shirt. When asked about the costume change, Taylor wrote, “it has absorbed enough excitement for today (smells). I am now in team colours.” Later, he apologized for his choice during a press update on the Philae lander. His apology was brief, but obviously heartfelt.

We might not know what Taylor or the European Space Agency learned from the shirt fiasco, but here’s the lessons I want everyone to get out of this mess:

  1. Spend resources on media training key players and involve public relations experts in managing event optics. While every institution decides how to balance between their employees’ professional presentation and individual expression, they need to be aware of the message their representatives are sending to the world. For globally-important events, it is not just appropriate but common sense to run any interview subjects past a test audience before sending them out into public. ESA has the awareness to plan an eye-catching comet-landscape backdrop for interviews; they also needed to apply that awareness to their scientists’ appearances.
  2. The Project Scientist is a leader representing a diverse group, and not just themselves. Fairly representing the team is more important than standing out as an individual. The scientists on the Rosetta team didn’t deserve to have their incredible accomplishment undercut by something so trivial as a fashion faux pas. A cheap and easy way to combine this with the lesson above is for the Project Scientist to recruit the rest of the science team as a test audience, running potential outfits past them for approval before the event. It’s normal to do lunchtime-talks or mock interviews practicing in front of colleagues, so just add personal aesthetics to the list of things receiving peer feedback.
  3. Consider how people from different circumstances and cultures will view the key players. This doesn’t mean catering to every cultural conception on how a scientist and a leader should look, but it does mean being aware of who will object to what and why. Schools get upset by unexpected vulgarity, sexuality, nudity, or violence in their educational programming. For Taylor, anything short sleeved to reveal his tattoos would allow him to tweak conservative stereotypes of what a scientist looks like without entering into the realm of inappropriate.

But most of all, I really, genuinely wish Taylor had picked any of so many other options for a loud, provocative shirt: something thematically-appropriate and maybe even geek-hilarious. I wish this because it makes me sad that my unreserved giddiness about the Philae lander is tainted with yet another tiny and idiotic bit of sexism to ignore. I’m irritated that as I paw through fresh data releases, I wonder if this shirt reflects an uncomfortable working environment for the women on the Rosetta team. I’m annoyed that I’m distracted from the astonishing, impressive science being done by the Rosetta team to write about something as ridiculous as a scientist having a flawed sense of fashion.

I’d rather be ogling Churyumov–Gerasimenko as seen from the surface of the comet with lander-leg in foreground than contemplating a scientist’s fashion sense. Image credit: ESA

But this mistake doesn’t need to be all grumpy discontent over an incredible technological achievement shadowed by a poor choice. One of the many hilarious responses to this fiasco was a quick mockup of an alternate shirt pattern, one highlighting famous women in science:

Along with provoking quite a few giggles, Elly Zupko, the woman behind the design has been talked into trying to make the shirt for real with the intention of donating proceeds to science diversity programs. She’s soliciting names and images of women in science who should be featured on the fabric. Zupko has a lot of logistics to figure out, but she’s enthusiastic and buoyed by the support of others eager to celebrate the wide diversity of women in science who have contributed so much over the years. If all goes well, the take-away of this mess will be the Project Scientist for the another incredible space mission wearing another shirt covered in ladies, but this time celebrating them instead of objectifying them.

I’m not happy the shirt was worn, and I’m not happy about the underlaying problems that make something this thoughtless resonate with the personal experiences of so many women in science. But I am very happy at how quickly the problem was addressed by the shirt disappearing and Taylor’s mea culpa. I’ll be extremely happy if the ultimate outcome is a new work-appropriate shirt featuring inspiring women scientists to add to my collection of science apparel. But most of all? I am totally thrilled I live in a universe where a robot sent us photographs taken from the surface of a comet.

The discussion section is awe-inspiring, and well worth reading and participating in. If it’s intimidatingly large, here’s highlights of people engaging in productive, polite conversation on thorny issues.