Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lesson of a Rosetta Scientist's Shirt

The New York Times just wrote a fair piece on Matt Taylor, the British Scientist from the Rosetta Mission team who showed up on the big day with the wrong shirt.

It's a heart warming story, truly. A dear friend hand-makes a fun, bold bowling shirt, for their scientist friend. The scientist decides to honor the gift by wearing it on the glorious day when their mission makes humanity's first ever landing on a comet. Wow! Hurrah for science! Hurrah for breaking down stupid stereotypes of lab coat scientists and injecting some personality in the day!

Except there is just one thing: the shirt shows, among other things, sexist images of women.

The debate is on. What exactly is wrong with the shirt? And what should be done about it?

Let's break down its many layers.

Layer #1-- Taken literally and absent of any social dynamic, the illustration on the shirt is sharply unpleasant to look at for many women. That's on a purely aesthetic basis.

Layer #2-- The shirt exists in a cultural context in which many women nurse old wounds of objectification and sexual aggression. To them, the illustration is a reminder (or an outright trigger, the case may be), which piles on the unpleasantness of Layer #1.

Layer #3-- Absent of any intent, the shirt is a reliable signal that the wearer is at least unaware of its impact on many women. Knowing that at least one man in the organization lacks that awareness suggests the place does not value developing in its members the kind of understanding of other people's perspective that's needed to work well as a diverse team. That always makes things hard when you are the underdog.

Layer #4-- The shirt opens the possibly that the wearer does in actuality love the shirt, at least in part, because it displays a woman entirely "as a heterosexual man sees her", removed from any depiction of her own agency. Granted, it's not a given that the person is an avowed misogynist. Granted, it's not at all a given that the shirt is used as a kind of twisted awareness campaign supporting objectification, let alone supporting rape culture --this shirt is not as grossly unambiguous as the ones that read "no means yes, yes means anal". But the possibility is open all the same, and that's uncomfortable.

Layer #5-- Once the possibility is open, stereotype threat kicks in. Stereotype threat can easily kill 60% of someone's performance in a controlled environment. In an organization, this means many great women will leave for an environment where the whole 100% of their creativity can express itself.

These five layers are active regardless of the wearer's intent. Here, morals of intent and morals of impact split. What exactly should we do with a very negative impact done by someone with no ill intent?

One of the best attitudes I know is Hacker School's: "[once your impact is pointed out to you], apologize, reflect for a second, and move on."

Unfortunately, Matt Taylor's case doesn't make that possible. He participated in a major cultural event, at the very same time two other large misogyny conversations are burning all over the internet: (1) gamergate and the associated terrorizing of outspoken women in the game industry. (2) the exiling of women out of computer science, out of the Valley, and in particular Uber being outed in a big way this week. It's unavoidable then that Matt would become a symbol of a greater problem. Strictly speaking, that's unfair to the individual involved. Still, when history knocks at your door, isn't it one's duty to answer it with greatness?

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