It has been very weird watching the #shirtstorm break on twitter in the last few days. It started before 6 am on Thursday morning, while I was still in bed, watching conversations about the ESA comet landing.
By Friday, the mainstream media had picked up on the story, and by Saturday? That’s when it got really nasty: not just people not getting it
…but actual, #gamergate style death threats and abuse.
Some of the nastiest I saw were in response to this:
This was not a case of a mob going after a scientist who wore a stupid shirt.
But coordinated abuse, directed from some of the nastier parts of the internet:
There have been many good things said by braver women than me in response to the trolls. If you want to know why it matters, try this storify which includes a number of good links to the experiences of women in science. Or this piece in the guardian, or this older
storify of what discourages girls from science. Or just follow @rocza and @docfreeride on twitter.
What I wanted to say here (and I’ll keep this brief) is what I think this whole episode means for scientists, and the responsibilities we have to science and to each other.
I am sure Dr Matt Taylor – aka the guy in the shirt – regrets having chosen to wear it. For one thing, it detracted from what was otherwise a moment of serious professional triumph. But his apology clearly acknowledges that he is sorry for giving offense.
What I very much doubt is that he understands why he gave such offense. I don’t doubt this because of any great insight into his character, but because I know – from my own efforts in talking about sexism in science with colleagues – that this is not an easy thing to do. I don’t want to draw a line between the male colleagues with whom I can discuss these things openly, and those with whom it is a no-go zone: but the line draws itself.
I have a lot of liking and respect for many of the men who choose to stand on the opposite side of the line. They do so not in opposition to someone – perhaps me – taking a stand on sexism in science. They are not hostile, and they can even be vaguely supportive. But it is very clear that they do not see the issue of women in science to be their problem.
This cannot continue to be the case. You can no longer afford to not be paying attention.
I say this not as some sort of threat – this is not a ‘we are coming for you’ moment. But a central tenet of scientific enquiry is that you can only claim to know anything about those issues upon which you are willing to be challenged. So staying quiet? Yep, it’s an option – so long as you bend over backwards to get out of the way when someone who knows something about the issues has something to say.
You want to have a say? Fine – then engage.