Comets, Probes, and Gender Inequality In Science


By Carol Finn, President, American Geophysical Union, Margaret Leinen, President-elect, American Geophysical Union, and Eric Davidson, Incoming President-elect, American Geophysical Union

During the Rosetta probe’s successful deployment of Philae on Wednesday, a male European Space Agency scientist speaking for the project was captured by the TV cameras wearing a shirt that featured images of partially naked women. While he has since apologized for his decision, ‘shirtgate’ sparked a global discussion of gender inequality in the scientific community.

Despite how far participation by women in our science has come, scientific workplaces can still be very uncomfortable and difficult places for women and others who are not in the majority. Clearly, as a profession, the Earth and space sciences have a significant diversity deficit, but that’s not the only problem. There are also issues of inclusion, recognition, visibility, stereotypes, double-standards, access to advancement, networking structures, and even safety, both physical and psychological.

As the world’s largest Earth and space science organization, AGU has adopted a strong position on the value of inclusiveness and the need to bring greater diversity to the talent pool in the fields we represent. But that’s only the first step.

We recognize the need to have deep and honest discussions about gender and diversity in the Earth and space sciences (and beyond), and we want to hear from you, our members, about how we can best engage with you on these topics. Tell us if you think our current programming is effective. Tell us what you think we should be doing that we’re not. Tell us what you are doing and how we can help.

In the end, AGU’s vision of a collaborative community of scientists advancing and communicating science and its power to ensure a sustainable future isn’t achievable if critical parts of that community continue to be marginalized. We all – as individuals and organizations– have a responsibility to educate ourselves and others, to foster inclusivity, and to make our worldwide community into an exciting, inviting, comfortable and supportive place where everyone can thrive.

*For those of you attending this year’s Fall Meeting, we encourage you to consider attending these important events:

Sessions on Geoscience Workforce Issues: Demography, Gender, and Diversity (oral session/poster session) and Increasing the Diversity of Undergraduate Students in the Geosciences (oral session/poster session)
Diversity Networking Reception
Career programming offered through our partnership with the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN): “Getting on the Tenure Track and Succeeding” Workshop and “Opportunities Beyond Academia” Workshop
A workshop hosted in partnership with the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences on Professional Skills Development for Women and Minorities
A workshop hosted in partnership with the InTeGrate, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, and SAGE 2YC on Broadening Access to the Earth and Environmental Sciences
A Networking Reception for Early-career Female Scientists and Students hosted in partnership with ESWN and the Association for Women Geoscientists

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  1. AstroInCa

    One thing that should also be considered is the need to build connections and not alienate allies. When someone is driven to tears over a shirt questions arise over whether problems relating to feminism are now less significant then problems relating to “mean girls” and online lynch mobs.

  2. AstroInCa

    “We all – as individuals and organizations– have a responsibility to educate ourselves and others, to foster inclusivity, and to make our worldwide community into an exciting, inviting, comfortable and supportive place where everyone can thrive.”

    Where was Matt Taylor’s “comfortable and supportive place” when he was being called an asshole and dragged through the mud.

    Almost everyone wants a inclusive workplace where everyone can thrive. But not every path in that general direction will lead us there. Some head right off a cliff.

    • M

      Matt Taylor’s individual right to wear offensive clothing does not trump the collective right of all of women in science to feel comfortable to perform their duties in the workplace.

      • DynoMike

        Your insistence that the sexual portrayal of the female body makes all women uncomfortable may be why you’re having trouble finding any allies among women.

        So are you going to petition to change the name of the Andromeda Constellation? Y’know, since it’s named after a mythical woman who was chained naked to a rock.

    • planetsrock

      Actually, Matt did not receive even half the backlash received by women who dared to speak up. He did not receive physical threats of rape, he was not lynched. *For daring to speak up.* Let that sink in.

      If a shirt is inappropriate to wear into an elementary school classroom, it is also inappropriate for work and for international media events. And that goes for women, too. Saying that being inclusive means people can be free to be offensive is a highly slippery slope. Do I think think should have gone as far as it did? probably not. However, perhaps it is time that we do draw attention to the continued inequality in the workplace, even in science.

  3. Oz

    Just like workplace safety, *everyone* needs to call out clothing like this in the workplace when it occurs. It’s inappropriate for a work environment, full stop. BTW were the media liaison people asleep?

  4. CG

    As a young woman scientist, I attended many meetings where I was the only woman present. Now there are usually at least a few, but not always. It can be intimidating. It can be difficult to get a single word in when people will just talk over you. Walking into a professional setting and seeing a shirt like this immediately sends the message that you aren’t welcome and won’t be taken seriously. It is offensive in a professional environment. Whether intentional or not, wearing a shirt like this to work sends a message to all the female employees that they are just sexual objects rather than colleagues and friends. I like funny shirts, I understand wearing something as a joke just because it is so terrible, but when you stand up in public as a professional and role-model, you should look like one.
    I applaud the AGU for addressing this issue.

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