Sexy Lady Shirts and STEM Careers

In 2012, Naval historians positively identified the sailor and nurse in the iconic photo V-J Day in Times Square. Photographer Alfred Eisenstadt was in Times Square when America’s Victory over Japan was announced. Eisenstadt witnessed a sailor passionately kissing a nurse and snapped a picture. That picture came to symbolize American victory in the pacific theater.

Only there was a problem. While everyone assumed that the nurse, later identified as Greta Friedman, and the sailor, identified as George Mendonsa, were a couple; they were in fact perfect strangers. George Mendonsa had been drinking in a bar with his date, Rita Petrie, whom he later married. When he heard the victory announcement, he ran outside and grabbed a nurse he had never met and planted a kiss on her lips. His future wife can be seen in the background laughing.

To feminists this picture symbolizes rape culture not victory. Blogger “crates and ribbons” sums up this view, “It seems pretty clear, then, that what George had committed would be considered sexual assault by modern standards.” Crates and Ribbons concluded “The unwillingness to recognize a problem here is not surprising, considering the rape culture in which we live. It is not easy to assert that a woman’s body is always her own, not to be used at the whim of any man without her consent.”

In a moment of tremendous elation, George Mendonsa decided to grab and kiss a nurse he didn’t know, while out on a date with his future wife, a questionable choice even under the circumstances. Still, both women have had time to get over it, (Greta and George appeared together at a veteran’s day parade in 2009). Astute readers will be able to see where this is going.

At a moment of tremendous personal elation, scientist Matthew Taylor decided to show up at a press conference wearing a garish bowling shirt festooned with scantily clad science fiction babes. To make matters worse Dr. Matthew Taylor described the Rosetta mission as, “sexy, but not easy.”

The feminist blogosphere and twitter-verse exploded in righteous fury. Science journalist Rose Eveleth led the way, exclaiming “Thanks for ruining the cool comet landing for me a–hole.” She added, “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.”

As the project scientist for the Rosetta Mission, Matt Taylor was at the zenith of his professional career. The Rosetta Mission had successfully landed an unmanned spacecraft on a comet for the first time in human history. The Rosetta spacecraft was launched more than ten years ago on March 2nd, 2004; Dr. Taylor and the Rosetta team had waited more than ten years for this moment. Given the celebratory mood, a somewhat relaxed dress code seems to fit the occasion.

More importantly, is Matt Taylor’s “gunner-gals” bowling shirt really the type of thing that keeps women out of STEM? Feminists have tried desperately to explain disproportionate male participation in STEM, and have latched onto the notion that STEM’s hypersexual environment drives women away.

Writing in Slate magazine, both Phil Plait, and Amanda Marcotte, linked to the work of “feminist pornographer” Greta Christina to support their contention that Taylor’s “gunner-gals” shirt exemplifies the hostile environment for women in STEM. Both writers contended that because Greta Christina is a pornographer, she isn’t a prude; ergo, one doesn’t need to be a prude about sex to take offense.

Plait and Marcotte are right; nobody could accuse Greta Christina of being a prude, but she could rightfully be called disingenuous. It is disingenuous to maintain that women are being driven out of STEM due to a sexualized environment (as evidenced by one goofy shirt), and write a book called Paying for It, which Amazon describes as “A consumer handbook and etiquette guide, ‘Paying For It’ is the first how-to book for sex work clients.” No coherent theory of the mind can simultaneously hold that sex work (aka prostitution) is legitimate, while maintaining that women run away shrieking from a sexy lady bowling shirt.

Still, Greta Christina tries, writing, “So doing an interview about your team’s big science achievement while wearing a shirt with scantily-clad pinup girls does not say, ‘Sex is awesome!’ It says, ‘Women are for sex.’ It says, ‘Every woman working on this project, every woman working on a similar project, every woman working in STEM, every woman aspiring to work in STEM -- this is what I think of you. Every girl dreaming of working in STEM someday -- this is what I’ll think of you when you’re grown up. Tits and ass. That’s what you are to me.’”

Conceivably, appearing at a press conference sporting a sexy lady shirt might send the wrong message to women thinking of STEM careers, but the idea that Taylor was sending a signal that he only thinks of women as “tits and ass” stretches belief.

It’s fair to say that while some women enjoy working in a sexually-charged atmosphere, many would be turned off by it. However, nobody has produced one shred of evidence that STEM fields are more sexualized than fields with large numbers of women, and nobody has produced a single shred of evidence that women are deterred from entering STEM because they’re uncomfortable with the sexually charged atmosphere. Both my parents and brother are mathematicians; "sexually charged" is about the last description one would use for a math conference.

The most logical explanation for why men and women participate in different fields at different rates, is that men and women, on average, are interested in different things. This is, and always has been, the best explanation for differences in male and female participation in a variety of fields. The sad thing is that the differences in male and female participation are comparatively small; while significant numbers of women participate in STEM fields, as Steven Pinker points out, no woman has ever won a “Darwin Award.”

What Amanda Marcotte, Phil Plait, and Greta Christina really want is quotas. Until half of the scientists and engineers are women, they will continue to point to the sexual harassment problem that keeps women out of STEM. The only way to reach that goal is with quotas: institute quotas or else, the subtext of the feminist extortion racket, “nice space program you have here, wouldn’t want anything to happen to it.”

Genuine sexual harassment, i.e sexual harassment that creates an environment discriminatory on the basis of gender, should be taken seriously. That does not mean that we should give in to extortion. It’s high time our institutions stood up for merit as the ultimate basis for hiring, firing, and promotion.