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Guys, we need to talk. (Houston, we have a problem).

This post is by Phil Price. I’m posting it on Andrew’s blog without knowing exactly where he stands on this so it’s especially important for readers to note that this post is NOT BY ANDREW!

Last week a prominent scientist, representing his entire team of researchers, appeared in widely distributed television interviews wearing a shirt covered with drawings of scantily clad women with futuristic weapons (I believe the term of art is “space vixens.”) In that interview, he said about the comet that his team is studying, “she’s sexy, but she’s not easy.” Here’s a photo of the shirt (sorry about the fuzziness):

Predictably, or perhaps I should say “understandably” a lot of people were upset. One female scientist tweeted “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.”  Another wrote “I don’t care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn’t appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM.” [STEM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math”, and yes I use the Oxford Comma.]

The opinion piece where I first read about this has been updated since I first saw it, a few days ago, and I’m not sure exactly what has changed. I think this quote was in the original version: “This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don’t feel welcome. They see a poster of greased up women in a colleague’s office and they know they aren’t respected.”

One thing that has changed since I first saw it is that the piece has been updated to note that the scientist has apologized. The revised piece says his “personal apology doesn’t make up for the fact that no one at ESA saw fit to stop him from representing the Space community with clothing that demeans 50 percent of the world’s population. No one asked him to take it off, because presumably they didn’t think about it. It wasn’t worth worrying about.”

A Washington Post opinion piece noted the guy’s apology and said:

none of the people calling out Taylor’s attire wanted him blacklisted from science, or punished, or to run into a corner and cry. The coolest people in the world (like the ones who land probes on comets) should also be held to the highest standards — they’re the ones that the children of the world are watching for cues.

And for young women in the world, a shirt covered in hyper-sexualized women does not send a good message, conscious or otherwise.

For every action there is an equal and and opposite reaction, so these complaints brought the reactionaries out in force. That Post piece quotes a bunch of backlash from people saying things like “When women stop looking for any reason to get offended then we can all get along sensibly” and ” how is sexy girls on his shirt objectifying woman?” But as far as I know the tweets quoted in that piece are just random nutcases on the Internet. Surely we can all agree that a shirt like that contributes to the discomfort many women feel in a male-dominated culture in which they feel disregarded and disrespected, and that he should not have worn the shirt. Right? Wrong. Even some in the mainstream media made sure they think the complaints are ridiculous. Here’s an example from USA Today: “It seems to me that if you care about women in STEM, maybe you shouldn’t want to communicate the notion that they’re so delicate that they can’t handle pictures of comic-book women. Will we stock our Mars spacecraft with fainting couches?”

I spent a couple of hours over the weekend in a Facebook discussion of this fracas — a discussion I have no desire to repeat — but I have decided this issue is too important to be left to a friend’s Facebook feed so here I am to make a few points.

  1. This is not a question of style. Nobody is complaining because the guy’s shirt is garish or ill-fitting or indicates a bad sense of fashion. I mention this because some of the reactionaries are saying things like “feminists have been telling us not to judge people by their clothes, and now look at this,” thereby completely missing the point. This is not about form, it’s about content.
  2. Some women aren’t bothered by the shirt, or by the sexually suggestive comment about the comet. I don’t think a woman has a special duty to be bothered just because she’s a woman, but I think everybody should be bothered by workplace sexism and that just because some women aren’t bothered by this example of it doesn’t mean it’s OK.
  3. I have friends, including female colleagues, who I’m pretty sure would not be bothered if I were to show up at happy hour or some other private function in a shirt like that. I think several would find it amusing and/or cool (I’ll be discussing this with them in the next few days). But I also think that even the ones who are perfectly OK with the shirt in private would tell me it is extremely inappropriate at work.
  4. I wouldn’t need to be told that a shirt like that — or a poster, or a screensaver, or anything else my colleagues might see — is extremely inappropriate at work. I have worked with enough women, and have enough female friends, to know that many of them really have been bothered by demeaning behavior in the workplace, such as sexually suggestive comments, leering, etc., that make them feel less than fully respected; this is not a made-up issue to play the victim card. If I were to wear a shirt (or have a poster or screensaver or whatever) like the one under discussion, I would contribute to that feeling of disrespect that some of them feel. I hardly believe this even needs to be said, and it’s astonishing to me that people dispute this.
  5. Nobody should wear a shirt like that at work, unless they are absolutely positive that nobody who sees it or knows about it will be bothered by it. If I did wear a shirt like that in a workplace setting, especially where I knew it was likely to be seen by dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people, I would expect to be fired. It is such an over-the-top violation of my workplace’s required sexual harassment training that I couldn’t possibly claim to have “unknowingly” offended people. But fear of being fired isn’t the main reason nobody should wear a shirt like this at work. Reason #4 is the reason.
  6. Some of the backlash against the complaints has come from people who see the scientist as a victim. They say he’s a socially inept geeky guy who didn’t mean any harm, and he apologized sincerely, and it’s wrong to publicly “shame” him. I’ve seen him described as “human detritus” left behind because he’s being “humiliated” by people whose outrage is as “phony as a three-dollar bill.” As I understand this argument — I’ve been told I seem to be incapable of understanding it, which may be true so I may have this wrong — this guy did nothing that would merit public criticism. To me this seems like a reverse version of the Emperor’s New Clothes: everyone is supposed to look at what the guy is displaying on his body in international news coverage and pretend they don’t see it. The “scientist as victim” crowd think that saying things like “a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn’t appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM,” well, that’s “shaming” the guy, and we all know how awful “shaming” is. Obviously I disagree. If you think it was wrong to wear the shirt in the workplace in front of millions of viewers you should be OK with people publicly saying it was wrong.
  7. I assume the scientist in question did not have the same kind of training that I am forced to take every year. Also, perhaps the attitudes in England are different. There’s reason to believe the guy really didn’t know that his shirt and his comments contribute to the perception that women are objectified in his workplace…or whatever is the right term is, if not ‘objectified’, I’m not up on the jargon. Perhaps nobody else who saw him in that shirt realized this either. The guy’s apology seemed heartfelt. I hope he doesn’t lose his job over this (a feeling echoed Rachel Feltman, the Washington Post writer linked above, who said she doesn’t want the guy punished).  If this one guy were the problem, there wouldn’t actually be a problem.
  8. Finally, I get to my main point. I am in agreement with the people who say that the point of complaining about the shirt is not to get that ONE GUY to change his behavior, it’s to draw attention to the fact that the STEM culture as a whole still has a long way to go with regard to sexism. This guy wore the shirt without realizing it contributes to a feeling, held by many reasonable women, that STEM fields are not welcoming to them. And none of his colleagues realized that either, or if they did they didn’t say it to him. And I’ve seen online comments from people in STEM who say that women who have a problem with this sort of thing should seek therapy before trying to become scientists. It’s all kind of surreal to me. It’s a bit like watching a TV show where a white man calls a black man “boy”, or a male executive calls his secretary “cookie”, and you know the scene is set decades ago…except this is happening right now, among people my age or younger! I thought we were way past this. With the examples of calling blacks “boy” and women “cookie”, what has changed is the culture: what was acceptable to decent people back then is not acceptable now. We need to change the culture so that a decent guy in the culture will not behave this way.

I’m hoping any comments will focus on my main point, #8: how do we move the STEM workplace culture in the right direction? If, instead, you think STEM culture is just fine or that shirt is just fine in the workplace, there are other blogs where that conversation is happening right now. Or if you’d like to post about whether the reaction to the shirt is or isn’t acceptable, there are blogs where that conversation is happening. And yes, there are even conversations about the acceptability of the reaction to the reaction to the shirt! I don’t want to get involved with all of that stuff, I’ve already done a bunch of it. I also don’t want to imply that because I agree with people who say there is a problem with sexism in STEM, I agree with everything said by everyone who agrees with that.

So back to the point:  how do we move the STEM workplace culture in the right direction?

I am required to take a couple of hours of “sexual harassment training” every year (the jokes write themselves, don’t they?) Most of the stuff is so obvious that the exercise always seems pointless to me..except evidently it’s not obvious because decent, intelligent guys are screwing it up really badly. And I do think they’re decent guys, in the sense that they’re not trying to offend anyone and the specific scientist in question seems really unhappy that he did so.

So, OK, there’s one idea: recommend or require sexual harassment training for people in STEM fields. It be part of graduate school training (as I experience it, it’s just two hours a year, which isn’t that bad). Another idea is to write blog posts like this one if you have a soapbox like Andrew is letting me hijack for this.  What else do we have? We’re smart people. We should be able to do better than this.

This post is by Phil Price. I’m posting it on Andrew’s blog without knowing exactly where he stands on this so it’s especially important for readers to note that this post is NOT BY ANDREW!



  1. Andrew says:


    You won’t be surprised to hear that I agree with pretty much everything you wrote here. But I hate to see you bumping that beautiful p-value chart I posted this morning!

  2. Borek says:

    Andres, can I point out that your main point, that the t-shirt
    “contributes to a feeling, held by many reasonable women, that STEM fields are not welcoming to them”
    is a rather speculative psychological hypothesis?
    Based on what you write it would seem that you have a pretty good idea about the character and the strength of the effect brought about by wearing this t-shirt.

    • Phil says:

      I guess it depends on what you mean by “a pretty good idea.” For reasons mentioned in the post, I’m convinced that the shirt has a negative impact. Also, I am pretty sure the impact is very small, which is why I said “If this one guy were the problem, there wouldn’t actually be a problem.” I see the shirt as a symptom of a problematic culture, not as a major problem in and of itself; I said this in point #8, which is my main point.

      I realize it’s a long post, perhaps too long, and that since you didn’t read the very last line you presumably didn’t read the preceding few paragraphs either. Perhaps I should have put the most important point first, but then the stuff afterwards seems kind of trivial and seems like just a distraction. At any rate I encourage you to go back and read Point 8.

      • Dan Simpson says:

        I’ll +1 this.

        I’m not a woman in STEM (always a good way to begin a conversation like this), but I am a gay in STEM, which is another non-dominant class. The big difference is that I get to (and have in the past, and try really hard not to in the now) “butch up” and join the dominant class, so it’s not as bad for me as it could be.

        And I can tell you that non-televised versions of the shirt things happen all the time. The air is full of the jokes that didn’t land, and the swearing at the code, and, occasionally but not necessarily rarely, genuine sexism and homophobia.

        And what happens? More often than not, I just take a deep breath and try not to rage spiral. Or sometimes I might engage. Or sometimes I might register and move on to other things (if you want forgiveness, go talk to a priest. I remember.). And then, when you’re having drinks with your fellow STEM gays (or, I assume your fellow STEM women, or frequently a fun combination of the two), you tell stories and vent and then try and get back on track. Because that’s what you have to do. (And no, these stories don’t come out with the straight guys, because all you ever get told is that it’s not that bad)

        So when people talk about effect size, or that it’s just one shirt, or that they or a woman they know weren’t personally offended, I want to scream. It’s everything. And, critically, every story you will EVER hear about some horrible sexism that a female scientist has encountered will be followed by stories of a million male scientists minimising the encounter. Because when you say that a senior staff member said that women aren’t as good at maths as men because they’re always thinking about babies, the response is inevitably “that’s just John”. (And yes, this does extend to genuine propositioning/touching sexual harassment. But he’s a good bloke…)

        And, the really terrifying thing is *it’s probably better than it used to be*.

        When it comes down to it, dealing with this is really not hard (fixing it on the other hand). When there is a strong signal from a minority group that something is wrong, you stop, listen, and ask what you can do to fix it. Don’t moan about effect sizes, or censorship, or PC gone mad or any of the other stuff. That’s. Just. Crap.

        • Sam Post says:

          I second this — but I think it is often under estimated how small of an impact is needed to drive people away from a field.

          My fairly recent experience in college, was that most people tended to fall into a field of study more or less by chance. While some people knew what they wanted to major in, or study when they entered university, many people, myself included, had fairly weak preference and ended up going into whatever class we liked most Freshman year, or what ever lab we did undergraduate research in.

          It is easy to imagine a situation where a fairly low amount of sexism or homophobia would be enough to deter a person from going back to do research in a lab for a second year, or focus their energy and their passions elsewhere. This certainly may not deter people who know what they want to do, but for many of the other students, it might be enough to sway them away from fields that suffer from issues of sexism to fields where they are better respected.

          I don’t have to imagine. It happened to me. I went into university with vague inklings of doing medicine. I joined a pre-medical group and went to meetings. The pre-medical group was filled with a bunch of guy who did a wonderful rendition of the college jock. There were a bunch of gay slurs, which I tried my best to ignore.

          At the same time I was taking psychology classes. I ended up getting research with a psychology lab later that year. I loved the people I worked with there, and enjoyed their company. The work was a bit boring but okay. As time drifted on, my time got more precious it was pretty easy to stop going to pre-med meetings, but I kept going doing research and going to psychology seminars.

          I am now a grad student in psychology and enjoying it. If things had been reversed though, my guess is that I would have ended up doing medicine. A fairly small change in the people I interacted with might have lead to very different life trajectories. I’m not sure I’m alone in feeling that.

          I don’t think this is an issue for just STEM fields though. Many other fields, like finance suffer from similar problems.

        • Noémi says:

          I’ll +1 this (as a woman in stem). The responses to the criticism of the shirt actually are what bothers me most, because it nicely highlights the cultural problem, and how women are often taken less seriously then men.

          I also want to say that I really appreciate Phil taking the time make this post.

    • BMGM says:

      I’m a woman in STEM and I gasped when I saw the video clip with the shirt. That is sooo inappropriate. My younger self would have run away and cowered. The seasoned me I would slap him (lightly) on the side of the head and tell him to get off the screen and shut his mouth, NOW!

      I think I need to write a longer post about what happened to me when I was an undergrad at Berkeley, right when the number of women majoring in CS plummeted. Look for it on my Technology Tuesday series.

  3. Borek says:

    Sorry about that, Phil, now I see it – NOT BY ANDREW

  4. numeric says:

    Reminds me of a Doonesbury strip from the 70’s when a female reporter on the student paper, is writing about some political event and describes all of the male attendees by what they are wearing (“nattily attired in a golden brown Brooks Brothers suit”, etc. Michael Doonesbury, an editor, reads this and then says, “I see. You’re trying to make a point here.” It seems to me the equivalent to this shirt for a female scientist to wear would one be adorned with male body builders or male porn stars with their 3-sigma equipment. A press conference by a prominent female scientist wearing such might be more effective than the points in the post above, which were already recognized 40 years ago in mildly progressive comic strips. I’m guess this spokes scientist isn’t really clued in but no one likes ridicule–remember Colonel Blimp.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “So back to the point: how do we move the STEM workplace culture in the right direction?”

    Uh … we could go back to requiring gentlemen to wear suits and ties at work unless they’re doing manual labor. That’s one option and the one I’d endorse.

    The other option would be to enforce ever more puritanical speech codes and come down hard on thought-crimes. Then send offenders off to reeducation camps (I mean sensitivity training) to purge them of wrong-think. In the past people in creative professions tended to be against such measures finding them unhelpful on balance, but I guess the creative fields aren’t what they sued to be.

    In 1665-1666 a very young Newton dramatically advanced the exact sciences in time a with very high infant mortality, horrible nutrition, as the plague swept through his country, his countries capital city burned down, his country suffered an invasion, and without even the slightest hint of all the technology, conveniences, and other resources we have today. Yet a woman today can be deterred from finishing her thesis by comic book pictures (no word yet on how many men quit STEM because male superheroes are drawn with impossibly large muscles). Women really are delicate flowers aren’t they?

    A third option would be mix salt peter in with the scientists food, thereby removing their sex drive altogether. That would make STEM fields completely hospitable to women. I bet that guy in the shirt wouldn’t even mind since after crying during his apology for the crime of wearing a garish shirt, I doubt he’s ever going to have sex again anyway.

    • Phil says:

      This falls into the category of “If, instead, you think STEM culture is just fine or that shirt is just fine in the workplace, there are other blogs where that conversation is happening right now.” If you have more comments along these lines, please find such a forum and make your comments there.

      • Anonymous says:

        Dear Phil, I made no claim about STEM culture being just fine either for or against. In fact my first solution indicates explicitly endorses one at least one change.

        Before nominating yourself to be Thought-Controller in Chief and anti wrong-think enforcer, why don’t you learn to read first?

    • Corey says:

      “A third option would be mix salt peter in with the scientists food, thereby removing their sex drive altogether. That would make STEM fields completely hospitable to women.”

      You seem to think that men’s sex drives are the problem, thereby betraying a rather low regard for men and our capacity for self-control. As a man possessing a sex drive who has somehow managed to avoid sexist behavior in the workplace, allow me to offer you a hearty [Redacted by Phil]

      • Phil says:

        “So back to the point: how do we move the STEM workplace culture in the right direction?”

        • Anonymous says:

          Phil, in my first comment I gave three suggestions. The first one serious.

          The second one was written in a way to suggest (a) there are big picture costs to speech codes, sensitivity training and other such thought-crime countermeasures even if (especially if!) they sorta work, and (b) such thought-crime counter measures inspired by a shirt suggest you believe women are in some sense weak willed and can’t handle themselves. If you disagree then the benefits of these thought-crime countermeasures aren’t as great, while the big picture costs are still there. It shifts the cost-benefit analysis.

          And a third satirical option designed to satirize the overwrought reaction to a shirt. Not to satirize a reaction mind you, but the overwrought reaction in some quarters.

          That’s all I said Phil. Nothing more. You and Corey attacked me with the ever so subtle suggestions that I shouldn’t be allowed to speak because I’m probably some cretin. Well I fought back and I’m tired to those kind of tactics from people who never seem to be around when there’s real (risky) fighting for women’s rights to be done.

          • Phil says:

            “Anonymous” (the Anonymous of the “remove the sex drives of scientists” rhetoric), I’ve gone back and trashed a whole bunch of comments, by you, me, Corey, and others, that were off topic or overly personal or in other way objectionable to me in my role as self-appointed thought police. This has destroyed the nesting of the comments in a few places.

            Your first suggestion, to have a formal workplace dress code, would stop people from wearing objectionable shirts, I agree. I don’t at all object to you making the suggestion. For a variety of reasons I don’t like the idea — mostly I think it would solve very little of the problem while making the workplace overly formal — but it’s certainly a legitimate suggestion and one that our grandparents’ generation would have taken for granted.

            I agree that there are downsides to things like speech codes, and even to sensitivity training. But of course I could throw your own concept back at you: if your personality, character, and morale are so fragile that they can be destroyed by two hours a year of a boring online course, well, you are a delicate little flower, aren’t you? Still, this is a perfectly legitimate point. There are costs to pretty much everything in life. In this case, there’s a big cost to business as usual, too.

            Are you suggesting nothing should be done at all? Or just that trying to eliminate every scrap of sexism is not going to be possible or would require paying too high a price? If the former, I strongly disagree. If the latter, I agree.

            I generally try to take people at their word — if they say they’re upset by something I assume they’re upset, if they say they’re trying to contribute to the discussion I assume they’re trying to contribute to the discussion, if they say they’re not trying to be hostile I assume they’re not trying to be hostile, etc. In your case I’m not able to do that. You use inflammatory and arguably defamatory words (“thought crime,” “self-appointed thought police”, etc.) and when called out for your hostility and for not really trying to contribute you do this “who, me?” schtick. I’m not sure what to think of this.

            Only you can know what is in your heart or in your mind. The rest of us have to judge from what you type. Your previous angry/bitter/combative comments made you look like an angry, unreasoning jerk and were ineffective at convincing me, or anyone else, of anything. This one (the one I’m commenting on here) is much, much better. I think calling sensitivity training a “thoughtcrime countermeasure” is ridiculously hyperbolic, but not so much as to render your argument absurd, which was the case with your earlier stuff. If you continue in this way — clear statements of what you mean; no insults or obviously absurd analogies or crazy-sounding exaggerations of other people’s points — then people will listen to your views and think about them, and possibly be influenced by them. I hope and assume that that is your goal. So, nicely done. (Now you can tell me what a horrible person I am for being so patronizing).

          • Corey says:

            For the record, I didn’t suggest that you not be allowed to speak. I did give vent to an offensive and markedly vulgar exclamation expressing anger at and contempt for you in response to an insulting attitude that (I believe) was implicit in your third satirical option.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          You know, maybe STEM has been moving in the wrong direction as it becomes more obsessed with microagressions rather than, say, exploring space or curing diseases?

          • Phil says:

            There’s nothing wrong with eliminating microaggressions while exploring space and curing diseases. And while we’re trying to explore space and cure diseases it would be nice not to deter competent people from working on those problems.

            • Simon says:

              Not that I took you seriously before, but using ill-defined words like ‘microaggressions’ is hilarious. For a causal inference blog it’s pretty funny how all those constant demands for extreme rigor in scientific inference are thrown out the door the moment an non-scientific term like ‘microaggression’ can help further your ideological point.

              In this case, it is by definition ideological. It’s a group of people with an idea on how the world works, for which we lack any reasonable inferences. The argument is that a scientist wearing a shirt with PG13 attractive women on it is going to have a treatment effect of pushing women out of the field.

              Self-rightousness results in activist-science, which is hardly science at all. In the Poverty of Historicsm Popper wrote:

              >These tendencies of historicism appeal to those who feel a call to be active; to interfere, especially with human affairs, refusing to accept the existing state of things as inevitable. The tendency towards activity and against complacency of any kind may be called ‘activism’. I will say more about the relations of historicism to activism in sections 17 and 18; but I may here quote the well-known exhortation of a famous historicist, Marx, which strikingly expresses the ‘activist’ attitude: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.’

              He was getting at the willingess to toss out knowledge when we feel inclined to push the world how it ought to be, and to progress history to where we think it belongs. But that view of the world isn’t compatible with the scientific method. You don’t get to pick and choose your burden of proof for information depending on whether or not you want to publish something. Then the expected reply — which you already gave — is that it’s not that shirt in particular, it’s the greater set of metaphorical shirts. Which is a poor response. So it is the shirt, until someone points out that is this shirt ‘treatment effect’ really substantive? At which point you appeal to some general set of undefined events, wrap them up as ‘microaggressions’ and assert that these are deterring women from entering the field (because there aren’t a lot of women in the field, and surely there must be a simple explanation for that… for what reason?).

              • Andrew says:


                What are “those constant demands for extreme rigor in scientific inference” of which you speak? Is it “extreme rigor” to compute Type S errors and exaggeration factors? Is it “extreme rigor” to use Hamiltonian Monte Carlo to sample from posterior distributions? What is “extreme rigor” exactly? Rigor sounds like a good thing, but “extreme” sounds a bit . . . extreme.

                Regarding your point about inference and decision making: often we’re in the situation where our data and our causal identification are weak and we can’t make causal claims. Nonetheless this does not allow us to avoid making decisions! The flip side of not putting too much trust in “p less than .05” results is to recognize that partial information can still be relevant for decision making, a point we make in the second-to-last paragraph of this article, which appeared originally here on the blog.

                So, no, I don’t see any inconsistency in my interest in statistical communication and rigor, and Phil’s interest in improving workplace environments.

              • Simon says:

                Hmm, I have an extreme level of respect for you, and appreciate your response. You’re an academic role model, so I wouldn’t want to butcher my writing on a controversial topic and come across as silly. So here are a few final thoughts if you or anyone else cares to read:

                Having a significant other who works in a male-dominated field, I would never want to come across as against improving a workplace environment (that’s a bit like the rhetoric of “why won’t someone think of the children?”). Of course I would like the workplace to be improved. If any person in a workplace is offended by some action, it’s probably not worth repeating that action. If someone says “I’m offended” you can’t necessarily argue that they are wrong, even if it is a tautology.

                More generally what I stand in firm opposition to is the blog-o-machine of discriminatory justice. I just don’t buy this notion of microaggressions being causally linked to women not entering STEM fields. The implicit assumption that drives these relatively trivial issues to the forefront is that they are representative of a greater set of oppression. And that when these individual trivial issues are considered together, they form a barrier pushing women out. And this is the explanation for why we have fewer women in these areas of study. When that is the assumption, these issues become huge, because they suggest men such as this scientist, taking comparable actions, are literally the reason women are choosing not to study STEM.

                We aren’t just talking about this issue in a vacuum. Frequently when we talk or write about events we are making a stance on their relative importance with respect to the cacophony of news and chaos. We are saying this is or might be some type of signal, which we can use to analyze a deeper understanding of the world. We know at the same time women were murdered across the world, but there is (probably) no new information in that signal we can use to change future outcomes (or that impacts our lives). We already know there are murderous savages in this world. I’m fine with improving the workplace environment, but I think that’s an oversimplification of why this became an issue to the extent that a significant portion of press became about this scientist and his shirt. That level of importance doesn’t exist without the foundation of assumptions. And I believe that foundation makes causal assumptions, which are based on a very activist based and ideological reading of how the world ought to be, which does go against the grain of careful inference.

              • Phil says:

                Simon, “microaggressions” is indeed hilarious, but it was Steve Sailer’s coinage and not worth fighting about. You’ll also see people on this thread referring to sexual harassment training as a “thoughtcrime countermeasure.”

                You say “The argument is that a scientist wearing a shirt with PG13 attractive women on it is going to have a treatment effect of pushing women out of the field.” You make the claim sound more extreme than my claim actually is — indeed, I have explicitly stated a couple of places that I think this one guy wearing this one shirt has a very small effect. But yes, I think that this sort of behavior, faced routinely for the years it takes to go through college and grad school and a career in science, pushes some women out of the field. I believe this for several reasons:

                1. I know from my own experience and from experiences other people have related to me that most people prefer some working environments to others, and that people generally prefer to work in places where they feel valued and respected to places where they do not. If you dispute that claim then there’s really no hope for you.
                2. I know that many women prefer not to work where they feel they are frequently being “objectified” or “sexualized” or whatever is the right term. I know this for several reasons, one of them being that some women have told me this personally and many other people have said it or written it in other venues (such as in the comments on this blog post). A college friend told me that one of the reasons she left science was that she found the workplace environment unwelcome in these ways.

                In short, there is a lot of evidence that behavior of the sort exemplified by this guy is a deterrent to some women pursuing careers in science. And yet, somehow, you disagree: “It’s a group of people with an idea on how the world works, for which we lack any reasonable inferences.” Well, yes, I do have an idea on how the world works, but there’s no “lack of any reasonable inferences” about it, there’s plenty of evidence.

              • Steve Sailer says:

                Dear Phil:

                The term “microaggressions” is not my coinage.


                Here are some selections from


                Referring to “microaggressions” as “hilarious” might someday come back to haunt you. The term is taken very seriously at places like Oberlin, Smith, and Scripps. Remember, Your Permanent Record is searchable, so who knows when you might someday get Brendan Eichized for some quip you made back in 2014.

              • Steve Sailer says:

                “Microaggressions” is not my coinage, and there are people at places like Smith, Scripps, and Oberlin who take microaggressions very, very seriously. Here are some classics submitted to


                Keep in mind, Phil, that Your Permanent Record is searchable and some quip you made back in 2014 about “microaggressions” being “hilarious” might someday get you Brendan Eich-ized for your insensitivity to the victims of microaggressions.

              • Simon says:

                Dear Phil & Andrew, thank you for your thoughtful replies. I am willing to meet you part way in that I agree mistreatment towards women–specifically–is an issue. And careful analysis of how to keep professional environments safe and encouraging cannot be a bad thing. I do still stand by my argument that 1.) There is an unhealthy trend of reactionary anger on the internet, which looks to make examples and 2.) I think the main damage here is women are being treated poorly, not that there is a large amount of women purposefully not entering these fields due to systemic mistreatment.

                Once again, thank you for your thoughtful responses. I know you two are both very busy and I appreciate having the opportunity to debate this topic with you.

          • Liz says:

            Unless you assume that women (and/or gay people and/or racial minorities) have nothing to contribute to the exploration of space or curing diseases, then a climate that discourages these people from contributing is a problem. Microaggressions are a key component of such a climate.

      • Anonymous says:

        Corey, you folks are the ones that have such low exceptions of women that you think they can be stopped from becoming the next Newton by saw someone wearing a gaudy shirt. That is the softest bigotry of the lowest expectations I’ve ever seen.

        My comment was satire. You all seem to really believe this.

        • Corey says:

          Phil’s point #8 ably answers this. This one guy with this one shirt is not the whole of the problem; the fact that he thought this was okay reflects a mindset that goes beyond just him.

        • Phil says:

          I went ahead and approved this comment because I want to respond to one particular aspect of it. But before I get there I have to work my way through a few things:

          You say “you think [women] can be stopped from becoming the next Newton [because they saw] someone wearing a gaudy shirt.” As I said in my very first point, this is not a question of style. Nobody cares that the guy wore a “gaudy shirt.”

          I also said (point #7) “If this one guy were the problem, there wouldn’t actually be a problem.” This is not a problem of one guy wearing the wrong shirt.

          You can read Dan Simpson’s post above if you want to see testimony from someone who sees that culture matters. I knew someone in college (and who did better than me in the physics courses we took together) who told me she didn’t pursue science in part because she didn’t want to face a hostile work environment every day…not her exact words, but she told me a few things she’d run into, each individual one a small thing: inappropriate jokes, leers, comments…no single thing that was a big deal, but enough small things that she decided that she didn’t want to spend years of grad school and potentially the rest of her career dealing with that sort of behavior. So she quit. I am not asserting that she would have been the next Newton, but she wouldn’t have had to be the next Newton to have contributed something. I’m not the next Newton but I’ve contributed something.

          And finally I get to the point I wanted to make, which is the only reason your comment survived: Yes, women can persevere through the unpleasantness of minor workplace slights and harassments. They are not delicate flowers, and they are capable of withstanding years of minor unpleasantness if they have to. But they shouldn’t have to, and some of them choose not to.

          And yes, I really believe some women are deterred by this sort of behavior and some others persevere but find it unpleasant. I would like to change things so that fewer women are deterred and fewer women find it unpleasant. If you object to that mission then STOP POSTING.

          • mpledger says:

            The thing with minor things is that the person doing the thing probably thinks he’s approached the boundary of what’s acceptable and is not going to go any further. But person on the receiving end thinks he’s crossed the boundary well and truly and what’s to stop him going even further. There minor things leave people incredibly anxious about what’s the next thing coming their way even if nothing ever is.

            So the actual incident may appear somewhat trivial in isolation but it’s effect is bigger than the incident itself.

        • Krzysztof Sakrejda says:

          Nice work minimizing unprofessional behavior into “someone wearing a gaudy shirt”. Anyone faced with a daily dose of harassment is going to face a higher barrier to success than a person who feels welcome and comfortable. STEM fields are competitive _and_ success depends on close (mentoring) relationships.

          Womens’ mentoring relationships (with typically male mentors, just due to the current makeup of the relevant fields) have the additional potential complication of unwanted sexual advances and/or the mentor’s inability to understand how harassment manifests in a STEM workplace. That “gaudy shirt” screams “I don’t understand women’s workplace harassment issues” if nothing else. Maybe the guys manages to be personable enough to overcome that, or maybe female scientists looking for a key mentor avoid him like the plague. It sure doesn’t help.

          +1 for being part of the problem.

          • G. H. says:

            I just wanted to point out that it is a hard problem with a lot of factors. One can easily find himself as part of the problem with regard to a certain factor in a certain situation without even wanting to be. This is also true when one is part of the solution with regard to other factors of the equation.

            Relationship challenges might not only barise between persons of different genders and tension from sexual advances or rejections are well documented as being a general factor for friction between humans (and gods – obviously) for as long as we have even sketchy data (Gilgameš, Iliás and Odýsseia).

            By concentrating on gender in the context of the “biological” differences (?! – don’t have enough data here and not very comfortable with the criteria), your comment can also be seen as an unconsious exclusion of the around 9 million LGBT adults currently part of the US workforce (2010 Census data taken from wikipedia – sorry). With regard to the inclusion of this group your comment can therefore be seen as being part of the problem – this is not to blame just to point out how difficult “inclusion” and “equalitiy” (in the sense of equal chances) really is and how sparingly one should blame others.

            As with all semi-successful itnegration processes one needs cooperation between all stakeholder groups. While friction is great for internal cohesion of interest groups it is detrimental to solving the underlying problem that made people form these groups in the first place.

  6. jrc says:

    I was lucky enough to be trained by incredibly good empiricists, and more than half of them happened to be women. And so one day, referring to my classmates (who were generally younger than me) I said something like “wow, we have some really great girls in this dept.” And my adviser turned around in her chair, and stared at me, and said “Excuse me, what did you just say? You mean we have some really great women in this dept?”

    And in that moment I thought “Right. Yes. That was demeaning in a way I hadn’t thought about. Because even though I use the words “boys” and “kids” to refer to other graduate students, I work in a discipline with a long history of misogyny and as a somewhat older man there is no way to use the word “girls” in that context such that it does not (however intentionally or not) make the women in my department feel disrespected.”

    I have nothing but total respect for the women in my old department – the graduate students and faculty – and yet I still was capable of, mindlessly, behaving boorishly and stupidly and in a way that contributed to the persistent culture of misogyny in my field. And if I hadn’t had a strong (and powerful) woman as my adviser who was not gonna take that kind of s***, maybe I would’ve kept using that phrase.

    This is, to me, the way the history of male domination in STEM fields can lead to persistent misogynistic nonsense of the sort on display in that t-shirt. If that guy had my adviser in grad school, he would have been called out for it, and then stuck it in a box to be only worn to non-work beach parties (or, better, never). But he probably never had a woman in a position of power who said to him “that behavior is inappropriate and who the f*** do you think you are.?” I think it is very important to have that… I know I’m very glad that I did.

    • Phil says:

      Calling grown women “girls” is a great example of behavior that needed to change. An older generation of men used to do it without even thinking about it, and some of them were upset at the suggestion they needed to change. “What’s insulting about the term ‘girls’?” seemed to be the attitude, as if it weren’t literally belittling. Good for you for recognizing the problem and fixing it in yourself, and good for your advisor for calling you on it right away.

      To go off on something of a tangent, the lack of an unambiguously female version of “guys” is a problem that has flummoxed me at times. I guess I’m just young enough (or had just enough of a different college experience) that by the time I was in grad school I never found myself inclined to use ‘girls’ to describe women over 18 or so. But sometimes “women” feels awkward or overly formal. I wouldn’t say “he seems like a great man” if I meant “he seems like a great guy”… so what does one say when the subject is a woman? “She seems like a great woman” is certainly socially acceptable but seems odd, and although guys can be used in the plural to refer to a group of women, it seems very odd to say “She seems like a great guy.” It’s just an unfortunate lack in English, like the lack of an unambiguously plural form of “you” (unless you count the Southern y’all, which I propose should be de-hypenated and spelled “yall”).

      • Corey says:

        In, “X seemed like a great humanoid” you can just use “person” instead of “guy” and “woman”.

      • MC says:

        “Lady” is what I’ve taken to using. “They’re a great bunch of guys.” “They’re a great bunch of ladies.” P.S. I’m a woman in science and I have thought about this, because it feels weird to me to use “women” and “girls” just doesn’t work.

        • Phil says:

          This is interesting. I pretty much avoid “ladies”; for some reason the word seems awkward to me and I always feel self-conscious about using it. For some reason it has negative associations for me…it makes me think of Jim McKay covering “ladies'” tennis and talking about how perky they girls are. At the same time it makes me think of the Beastie Boys’ “Hey Ladies!” The combination of associations makes it hard for me to use the term seriously.

          I think I hardly ever hear anyone use the term. I’ll start paying attention. It would be nice to have a word.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Male dominated fields are sometimes not just male dominated… but 100% male. For example perhaps industrial machine-shop floors in the 1960’s. But these are still basically social environments in which hairless apes compete for social power, and much of that social power is related to access to females. In other ape species, access to females is controlled by the dominant male. It seems unsurprising that human males have ritualistic procedures for ensuring their status in all-male competitive environments that involve displaying sexual dominance. A lot of people don’t like to hear analogies to other ape species. Most of them haven’t spent much time at the LA Zoo watching the chimps or gorillas.

    I think the main mechanism by which one gets rid of such male-male ape signalling is to introduce a substantial number of females. Male-male signalling is very different from male-female signalling. If males are competing with other males for dominance, they do very different things from if they are competing directly for attention from females.

    So, paradoxically, the main way to make males stop doing this sort of thing is to introduce more females, and the main reason females don’t participate… is that males do this sort of thing.

    My impression though, is that in fields that started out dominated by males but which have been much more integrated for a fairly long time, this kind of thing doesn’t go on nearly as much, because the males involved have no incentive to do it, it doesn’t “help” them in any way. I think today in Law and Medicine, the younger participants are much less likely to do this sort of thing than say the 65 year old males who started out when the field was still male dominated. Similarly, undergraduate classes in engineering are these days closer to 50-50, and the interactions between males and females at that level seems much more even keeled.

  8. Thom says:

    “Also, perhaps the attitudes in England are different” – no I think I most scientists in the UK would have the same reaction. I sort of feel sorry for the guy who wore the shirt, because (as you noted) no one told him how people might react to it (and he appears a bit clueless in this department):

    (.. but don’t read the comments if you want to keep any perspective on this. I don’t really understand how people can get so worked up about what have been very mild and measured criticisms.)

  9. question says:

    Is there any speculation on why he chose to wear it? What if he had an important task to do but was very nervous so he wore his “lucky” shirt to feel more comfortable?

    Also, are we sure this is not manufactured controversy to drum up at least some sort of interest in the project amongst people who may otherwise ignore its existence?

    • Phil says:

      “If, instead, you think STEM culture is just fine or that shirt is just fine in the workplace, there are other blogs where that conversation is happening right now. Or if you’d like to post about whether the reaction to the shirt is or isn’t acceptable, there are blogs where that conversation is happening. And yes, there are even conversations about the acceptability of the reaction to the reaction to the shirt! I don’t want to get involved with all of that stuff, I’ve already done a bunch of it. I also don’t want to imply that because I agree with people who say there is a problem with sexism in STEM, I agree with everything said by everyone who agrees with that.”

      • question says:

        I just don’t know anything about it and did not want to read through endless pages of people arguing to find out why he wore the shirt. It seems to be pretty odd behaviour to me.

        From your first link: “No one knows why Taylor chose to wear that shirt on television during a massive scientific mission.”

        Did anyone ask him why?

        • Phil says:

          I haven’t seen anything from him since his apparently heartfelt apology, in which he said he didn’t know anyone would be offended.

          I don’t think somebody says “she’s sexy, but she’s not easy” because it’s a lucky phrase or something.

          I think the guy honestly didn’t realize some women are dismayed by sexualization of the workplace or whatever is the right term. In the spirit of “never waste a crisis”, this is a good time to get the attention off of that one guy and that one shirt and onto the problem that it reflects, which is a culture that somehow allows a well-intentioned person to get to his age and station without knowing that some women have a problem with this sort of thing, not because they are man-haters or are looking for reasons to be outraged but because they face demeaning sexualization too often and shouldn’t have to face it in the workplace.

          I don’t think I’ve answered your question. I don’t know why the guy wore the shirt. For purposes of this discussion it doesn’t really matter why he wore the shirt: if he did it even though he knew some women (and some men, including me) would find it offensive then there’s a problem. If he did it because he didn’t know some women would find it offensive, that’s a problem too.

          • Phil says:

            Oh, it’s also worth noting that the guy has a non-traditional style that many people, including me, find somewhat refreshing: tattoos, casual attitude, not your stereotypical scientist. A garish shirt with cartoon characters on it doesn’t seem like it would be all that strange for him to wear; it’s just a real pity he chose this particular shirt, and paired it with that “sexy, but not easy” comment.

  10. Skippy says:

    If he didn’t want to be harassed, he shouldn’t have worn that shirt.

  11. Daniel Gotthardt says:

    I’d like to thank you for the post, Phil, and I’m happy to see that there are still sensible people in academia. I guess a lot of us here do not come from STEM but are more quantitatively inclined social scientists but your post and comment do apply to us, too. (Quantitative) Methods and Statistics still tend to be a male-dominated field and blindness towards inappropriate behavior is one of the major reasons. I really don’t have any good suggestions but I’d like to say at least three things:

    1) Learn about what many women encounter every day and try to emphatize how constant sexualization and objectification can make e.g. “harmless jokes” a contributor to the overall feeling not to be welcome and completely accepted.
    2) Be aware how your own action and words can affect the climate towards women.
    3) Don’t ignore sexism and inappropriate behavior from other colleagues, speak out and try to explain the problem to (male) colleagues.

    There is no simple list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts”, but you should try to educate yourself, speak with women you know about the problem, and *care*. Be supportive but don’t play the white knight rescuing a damsel in distress.

  12. Daniel Gotthardt says:

    As someone said here he managed to avoid sexist behavior in the work field I feel compelled to say that probably none of us managed that completely. Our society is filled with sexist images and we’ve all had our share of sexist socialization. It’s important to realize that, because another important thing, I forgot to mention in my earlier comment, is:

    Don’t be upset when you’re told that something you did was inappropriate or sexist.

    It does not mean that you’re a terribly bad person but that you might have some learned behavior that contributes to the discrimination of women. Of course, some scientists just are terrible persons and intentionally sexist but many of use are not but still many of us will not always be able to make ourselves free from sexist socialization. One difficult thing to handle, I’d like to mention, is the tendency of male persons to dominate discussions and to consider male opinions more thoroughly.

    Please try to be inclusive and reflect your own tendency to dominate discussions.

    It’s something I personally often have a problem with but it does help to be aware of the problem – to some degree at least. It’s also important to be aware of this issue when teaching students.

  13. Rahul says:

    I found the question itself annoying: “How do we move the STEM workplace culture in the right direction” The presumption that the STEM workplace has anything systematically wrong with it in the first place.

    Incidentally, at the Univ. I went to, sexual harassment training was mandatory every time you taught a class as a TA. So yes, most grad students did get those 2 hours of compulsory training. I’ll confess those were a very boring two hours.

    • Rahul says:

      In other words, what Houston would like to know is how you know that you have a problem.

      • Jake says:

        The thing about Bayesian statistics is you’re supposed to let the data update your priors.

      • Phil says:

        Rahul, I know quite a few women in science and every single one I’ve discussed these sorts of issues with has had first-hand examples of workplace sexism. This does not mean that every one of my female science friends has experienced this — maybe there’s a selection effect in who I have these conversations with. But to me it demonstrates pretty conclusively that there’s some kind of problem.

        Also, studies like the one reported here indicate a problem (in spite of some poor graphical choices in this article).

        The shirt and the “sexy, but not easy” comment are on the extreme side of what I’ve seen, but I’ve seen some inappropriate behavior myself.

        So, yeah, I know there’s a problem and that it’s not small. I’m not sure of the exact magnitude, of course.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Here’s the basic reality. The latest round of feminism started 45 years ago in 1969 and because it was overdue, it was immensely successful almost immediately. When I entered college in 1976 in Texas, feminist dogma was the conventional wisdom already. So we had rapid social change for a short period of time, and then things stopped changing very fast as men and women did what they wanted to do, which turned out to be less different than in 1968, but a lot more different than the theorists of 1970 had assumed.

      So here we are 45 years later, and we can look around and see that, say, 98% of the people obsessing over advanced baseball statistics analysis are men. The only explanation feminist dogma can come up with for what we can all see every day is a giant conspiracy theory: a guy with tattoos wears a shirt here, some lowlifes catcall an actress there, it all adds up to a colossal plot to keep women from being the new Newtons. So we have these hysterical outbreaks in the War on Noticing.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “Incidentally, at the Univ. I went to, sexual harassment training was mandatory every time you taught a class as a TA.”

      A friend of mine is a fire chief in Los Angeles. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005 he flew to Baton Rouge and drove down to New Orleans and pulled people out of the water. But when he got to Louisiana, before he could start rescuing people from drowning, he had to sit through another 2 hour sexual harassment training course.

      How many people in New Orleans died because of all the person-hours that rescuers had to first devote to sitting through this sexual harassment course? I don’t know, but it seems like an interesting question for statisticians to estimate.

  14. Rebecca says:

    Long-time listener, first time caller, and to my dismay, the only openly female commenter on this post (so far out of 51).

    I’m paraphrasing something I posted on social media a couple days ago. Taylor’s shirt, while in bad taste, is only part of the problem, but was the focus of almost all of the internet commenters (and the knee-jerk misogynist pitchfork wielders against the shirt critics). I very much could have done without hearing this rapey conquest metaphor for the years of hard work that went into landing on a comet, excerpted from the Washington Post: “Asked during an ESA webcast why the Rosetta mission was pursuing a comet, Taylor responded with a cheeky double entendre, calling Rosetta the ‘sexiest mission there’s ever been.’ ‘She is sexy, but I never said she is easy,’ he joked, before actually answering the question.”

    Phil actually mentions this a couple of times in his post but focuses the discussion on the shirt. Honestly, I’m more disturbed by the free pass Taylor is getting on that statement made while wearing that awful shirt. The anthropomorphic sexualization of science and technology is common and troubling. All the time, I hear or read comments like these: “I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians” (Varian), “I think data scientist is a sexed-up term for a statistician” (Silver), “[topic X] is so sexy right now”, “sexy code”, you get the idea. Taylor is just one more public example of this. I will add that Andrew himself has used this cringey descriptor quite a few times:

    I think this word choice is a gross and lazy way to try to grab attention. Why not just say something is exciting, buzzy, or well implemented, which is what you really mean? Men (it’s virtually always a man) say these things, apparently imagining fellow straight men as their default audience who are completely on-board with their concept of “sexy”. I don’t want to have to imagine what the writer/speaker thinks is sexy, and as a straight woman, I’m sure we often would disagree!

    • Andrew says:


      You raise some good points. But I dispute your statement, or I should say, the implications of your statement, “Andrew himself has used this cringey descriptor quite a few times.”

      What you did there was make a google search that gave a bunch of listings. But let’s look more carefully.

      In the first item on that list of links, I’m using “sexy” in a negative sense to correspond to strong, typically implausible, research claims that get undue media attention.

      The second link is to an unrelated post that happens to also contain a pointer toward the link I gave above.

      The third link is to a post by Phil.

      The fourth link is to a post by Aleks.

      The fifth link is to a post by me, quoting somebody else who uses the term “sexy.”

      The sixth and seventh links are again to an unrelated post that also contains a link to the first post above, in which “sexy” is used in a negative sense.

      In the eighth link, again, I’m quoting someone else (in this case the female writer Jenny Diski) who is using the term “sexy.”

      In the ninth link, again I’m using “sexy” in a vaguely negative way.

      The tenth link, like the second, sixth, and seventh, does not mention “sexy” at all, it just happens to have a link to a different post with the word “sexy.” That other post, in turn, contains the word “sexy” where I’m quoting someone else.

      The eleventh link points to a post where, in the comments, I write, “f all the pixels spilled on the sexy topics of himmicanes, ovulation and voting, fat arms and political attitudes, beauty and sex ratio, etc etc etc, were instead devoted to more serious topics such as early childhood intervention . . . then I think science would be working even better!” Again I’m using “sexy” in a negative sense.

      Etc etc. So, yes, I agree that “buzzy” is better than “sexy”—and I’ll go with “buzzy” in the future, I like that!—but be careful how you interpret the results of a raw google search!

      • Rebecca says:

        That’s all fair. But I think your thorough check on when “sexy” was said and what it meant serves to emphasize my point that “sexy” is not a great descriptor: some people like you and Nate Silver use it to convey a negative sense of overmarketed hype, while others like Matt Taylor and Hal Varian use it to mean something more like genuinely cutting-edge and exciting. I don’t like needing to jump inside people’s minds to figure out whether it’s sexy-good or sexy-bad!

        • Andrew says:


          I don’t think you need to jump in my mind to see how I’m using the word “sexy” (or, in 8 of those 10 links, not actually using the word “sexy” at all), you can just read what I wrote. It’s a word with different meanings at different times, as for that matter is “buzzy.” But I agree that the sexual overtones of “sexy” are generally irrelevant and can lead to problems. So I’ll switch to “buzzy” as it seems both more precise and less offensive.

          • Rahul says:

            To my mind it reflects the contortions of current thinking that one thinks using “sexy” with a negative connotation seems more defensible than using it in a positive way.

            • Andrew says:


              It’s not about being defensible, I was just responding to Rebecca’s google-based claim that I had “used this cringey descriptor quite a few times.” I took the “cringeyness” bit to be the association of scientific progress with sexual conquest (as in the original quote mentioned by Phil), so it’s relevant to that point if “sexy” is being used in an ironic or negative sense. In any case, it’s not the biggest deal in the world but i do get Rebecca’s point, that terms such as “sexy” can sound different depending on where you’re coming from. When I teach I sometimes try to defuse such issues by drawing attention to them or by mocking some of the ideas of gendered science, for example using statistical analogies to sewing or cooking as well as traditionally male subject areas such as sports and fighting.

    • Rahul says:

      So you are objecting to basically any exciting science being described as “sexy”?

      • mpledger says:

        I am. I hate “sexy” used that way. People are sexy not ideas or objects. It’s demeaning to people to equate those non-human things with people.

        Since it usually men who use the word sexy (I am sure there must be women but I’ve never heard any), it’s always comes across to me as particularly denigrating to women – that a women’s sexiness is equivalent to the latest iphone or the latest psychological theory.

    • Phil says:

      Rebecca, I’m trying to get some of my female scientist friends (and non-scientist friends) to weigh in here, but so far they’re declining. But also, although there are 51 comments on this post so far, there are “only” about 16 unique commenters. So you’re 1 out of 16, not 1 out of 51. I know, it’s cold comfort.

      I’m not sure whether Andrew has misunderstood your point, or whether I have. I think you’re saying that since nobody things that, say, statistics is literally sexy, they shouldn’t say it is. I think you’re saying people should reserve “sexy” for discussions of sex, which, except for sex research, probably means it shouldn’t come up in professional speech or writing at all. Is that what you’re saying? If so, it’s never even occurred to me before!

      I don’t think I use the term that way, but I can’t claim it’s out of sensitivity to the issues we’re discussing here, it’s just one of those common phrases that other people say but I don’t, like “just sayin’.” I shall ponder this.

      • Rebecca says:

        While I agree it’s not a good word in professional contexts, I’m can’t really claim to be all that professional. Professionalism is one valid argument against using “sexy”, but not exactly the one I’m trying to make.

        What I wanted to convey were a couple of other points One is that it’s just lazy writing. For someone else who agrees, see

        My other argument against “sexy” is its gendered nature. When I hear from a man about sexy discoveries, sexy technology, sexy cars, etc. (in the positive sense rather than in the overhyped sense), I have to assume the writer intends to describe something feminine (enticing, alluring, elegant, beautiful) rather than masculine (powerful, strong, handsome, whatever). I still think I get what the person means, but the description does nothing for me because I don’t experience the world like a straight man does. Further, I resent the unintentional suggestion by the writer that the default audience is straight men.

        • Andrew says:


          Interesting point: so, if I use “sexy” as somewhat of a put-down (as in, “the kind of sexy research that makes it into the tabloids”), I am perhaps implicitly equating sexiness with frivolity and femininity. I think you’re on to something here. I’m definitely switching to buzzy. Buzzy buzzy buzzy buzzy buzzy. Now I can’t wait for a chance to start using it. Given our current backlog of posts, you can expect to see regular appearances of “buzzy” starting in January 2015.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            Anti-“sexy” is the New Victorianism, as Heather Mac Donald pointed out a few weeks ago:


            There is, by the way, a lot to be said for Victorianism.

            • Chris Waigl says:

              “Sexy” as a descriptor of a technical problem or topic or task is basically a skunked term at the moment. I wouldn’t see much wrong with it in an ideal world. The problem is, we’re coming from a state where women have been largely a) occupying subservient roles and/or b) considered legitimate targets of sexual predation. Getting from there to one where men and women deal with each other on an equal professional footing seems to have to go through a phase of separating all references to our sexual nature from the workplace. It does avoid a lot of issues to do that, including some between cultures with varying attitudes to what modesty means, both for men and for women.

              Once we have matured to the point that female students don’t have to expect to be raped if they socialize among their peers, there is no statistically or practically significant difference in the responses to otherwise identical job applications headed by a male vs. a female name, female scientists and techies don’t have to affirm that, yes, we are indeed competent in our field (and, in case our desk is next to the director’s office, we aren’t the secretary, indeed, the secretary is out accompanying his daughter’s school trip), a scientist wearing a sexy outfit isn’t talked about it behind her back — THEN we may be able to get a bit more relaxed about it again. Maybe.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            According to Google nGram, the inflection point for “sexy” came in 1964-1965.


            It’s a Sixties word. A lot of political correctness is trying to reverse the Sixties.

          • Steve Sailer says:


            Please don’t use “buzzy.”

            You use “sexy” ironically to make fun of old coots from the Sixties for whom using the word “sexy” was part of their 1960s liberation from WASP Victorianism. That’s fine. We’re adults here and most of us get your joke and don’t get upset over it.

        • Daniel Gotthardt says:

          That’s really an important point. I didn’t think of “sexy” as a real problem when used as a descriptor of studies (or gadgets) but I see how it can be misleading and how its potentially gendered nature can be highly problematic.

          The other point or – I think – the main point you made is more important though. “‘She is sexy, but I never said she is easy,’ he joked, before actually answering the question” is highly inappropriate and a much bigger problem as the shirt he was wearing. Considering e.g. a guy like Julien Blanc who is touring around the world teaching men how to r*pe or at least sexually harass women, this is much more worrisome. It amplifies the idea that women are objects who have to be conquered and that’s not a message such a public person – or any for that matter – should distribute.

          What can that mean for STEM or other parts of academia? Do not treat women as objects but also do not use language that implies that you consider women to be mere objects. Even if you’re personally a perfect guy never treating anybody as an object, you 1) have to realize that others don’t know that and will potentially interpret your remarks otherwise and you 2) should acknowledge that every retelling of this stereotype will enforce r*pe culture and the objectification of women.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “Long-time listener, first time caller, and to my dismay, the only openly female commenter on this post (so far out of 51).”

      Something the advent of the Internet has demonstrated is that men and women tend to have strikingly different interests. Pre-Internet, men and women often got together in physical space and tried to find mutual topics of conversation, such as food. But come the Internet, guys just get together in cyberspace and talk about advanced baseball statistics like VORP and so forth.

      The tsunami of evidence that the Internet makes available that males and females have different obsessions encourages these hysterias over Catcalling, Shirtstorm, and the like by obviously undermining the reigning ideology that all groups would be identical on average if only there was no cisgendered straight white male oppression.

      • Erin Jonaitis says:

        I have been a regular reader of this blog for many years, albeit an infrequent commenter. I haven’t weighed in on this one because on certain topics, the preponderance of Andrew’s commenters are irritating to me. The eyeroll-inducing flamewar by some Anonymous or other (which has since been redacted — thank you, Phil) confirmed my suspicions, and so I judged this one a battle not worth fighting. That doesn’t mean I’m not reading. Rebecca, thank you for speaking up.

        The libertarian blog Popehat had an interesting post on the shirt, some of which touches on the issue of public shaming generally.

        • Anonymous says:

          That’s a shame Erin, I always liked your comments and thought they were ones to watch out for (I believe though there was one time someone made a spelling mistake which gave their comment an inadvertent sexual double meaning and you made a funny quip bringing that out -tsk tsk).

          Your link was interesting, but I hope those white shirts and thin black ties don’t come back in. Something tailored pleased.

          Big picture wise it seems to me women are taking over academia and the only major obstacle holding them back is tenure. Tenured-jobs-for-life has created an entire army of old-guy facility members who will be around 30 years after their sell by date.

          What do you think about getting rid of tenure, firing some of those old guys, and letting some younger female Ph.D.s take those jobs? It would be interesting to know how many of the tenured male commenters on this blog whole heartedly endorse that option.

        • Elin says:

          Honestly I stay out of it whenever this blog goes in this direction.

  15. Manuel says:

    I’m in my 24th year as a professor in a STEM field (Biology); I have graduated 16 Phd students and 3 Master’s students, and I have had 8 post-docs. Those groups have had 12, 3, and 5 women, respectively. I started advising students in my early 30s. To echo an earlier point: when it comes to creating a respectful and professional environment in which all are treated respectfully and professionally, there is no list of Do’s and Don’t’s that is both comprehensive and detailed.
    There are, however, some guidelines, rules-of-thumb, and notions (GRN) that can take a male advisor a long way toward moving STEM culture in a direction that will help the field and the people in it. Here are three such GRN that I have found useful as an advisor:

    1. Listen. When a woman in your lab tells you that something is bothering her about the lab environment, take her statements seriously and consider them. Similarly, when a woman in your lab tells you that something is bothering her about your behavior, take her statements seriously and consider them. You may agree, or you may not, but pay her the respect of thinking about what she says.

    2. Before remarking about anything regarding a student or colleague, ask yourself two questions:
    A) would I make that remark if the person were, e.g., male, female, black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.? If the answer is NO, think very hard as to whether or not that comment is necessary for the professional development of that student or colleague.
    B) if my wife (or daughter) were in a lab, would I want her advisor saying those sorts of things about or to her? If the answer is NO, think very hard as to whether or not that comment is necessary for the professional development of your student or colleague.

    3. Remember that, despite having been a social loser for much of my life, I am now in a position of authority and that people will model their behavior on mine. If I want a professional and respectful environment, I’ve got to live it.

    • Andrew says:


      Excellent points. Regarding #1, I recall lots of times when someone would come to me and relate some troubling thing that another person in authority had done to him or her, and I’d respond by just brushing it off as no big deal. This was not sexism on my part (I think) but rather a general desire to avoid conflict. It was just easier to believe that person A was exaggerating or misunderstanding, than that person B was doing something wrong. (Also, just to be clear, the examples I’m thinking of involved various levels of unethical behavior, not sexual misconduct.) And my usual reaction was to hope the conflict would go away on its own. But in many of these cases, the “person B”‘s involved continued to do various unethical behavior, and I wished I’d taken the original complaints more seriously.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        “This was not sexism on my part (I think) but rather a general desire to avoid conflict.”

        Or you are more interested in abstract topics and aren’t that interested in gossip and soap opera drama.

        • Andrew says:


          No, these were not about “gossip and soap opera drama,” they were settings where politics were getting in the way of people doing research, and it could well have helped had I stepped in, not in a forceful way but just by going to people and asking, “Hey, what’s going on?”, which could be enough to curb the worst behavior—people tend to be behave better when the light is shining on them. Or even if I had disengaged from these situations, separating myself and my colleagues from the offenders, that could’ve helped.

          I never dismissed these personnel concerns as “gossip and soap opera drama”; I just minimized them in the hope that they’d go away on their own, a strategy that can often makes sense but didn’t work so well in the examples that I’m thinking about.

          When person A tells me of bad behavior of person B (and I’m thinking about clear violations of professional or scientific ethics here, such as hiring someone under false pretenses or massaging data to hide undesired outcomes), it’s not always clear what to do. But I think that often I’ve erred in the direction of being too passive, not realizing that there are small actions that can help a lot.

          • Rahul says:

            What does “hiring someone under false pretenses” mean?

            • Andrew says:


              There are different versions of this and I don’t want to supply possibly-identifying details, but the basic idea is hiring someone, telling them they will be doing X, and then they end up being told to do Y. In some settings this can make sense—jobs are flexible—but in other settings it’s just wrong. For example suppose you were told that you’d be hired to write reports and solve statistics problems, and instead you were told to spend all your time making coffee. That’s not any of the examples I’m thinking of, but maybe that will give some sense of what I’m talking about. It’s ok to hire someone to make coffee, or to hire someone to do a variety of tasks, but not to mislead them ahead of time about what you expect from them.

              • Rahul says:

                Thanks. I see what you mean.

                It’s a very interesting topic though. In industry that seems perfectly typical and normal.

          • mpledger says:

            I think it’s a hard area to navigate. I used to mention problems as I saw it in a group meeting but then other people would come to me with their problems in the hope that I would take up their cause. Since I was at their power level I didn’t see why I should put my neck out to deal with their problems when they didn’t have the guts to do it themselves.

        • Liz says:

          I’m going to assume, Steve, that you don’t actually want any women in your workplace? Because you ARE the very problem we are discussing here. Thankfully, there is no one in my department who makes comments like this, or at least no one who makes such comments without being called out. But if I were in a department full of colleagues who classified problems like systematic sexism as “soap opera drama”, I would be looking for another position, even out of academia if I had to. Because I know there would be very little way for me to succeed in a department that not only thought that barriers to women’s success are non-existent, but only discussed by people who don’t care about things like abstract concepts.

    • Rahul says:

      Regarding your #1: Why just “woman”? Wouldn’t you just want to listen to anyone telling you about something bothering them in your lab?

  16. Manuel says:

    Andrew, agreed. All three of these GRN’s apply to many kinds of issues in addition to ones related to sex.

  17. The UK has plenty of people complaining about this. I’m sure they would like all scientists to be educated so as not to cause this sort of offense. Given that this sort of education was provided, I’m sure they would wish scientists who caused this sort of offense to be penalized, and driven out of science if they perpetrated repeat offenses. I am sure you could get some of them to volunteer to lead the teams of enforcers required for this. You would find these teams of enforcers eager to continue doing good by emphasizing or playing down scientific results with political applications so as to ensure public understanding of science was not dangerously confused. I have a romantic attachment to the view that scientific results can be objectively quantified and that the returns to the scientist are determined only by the success they achieve in their field, so I would be sad to see this happen, but it will happen in the affected countries and cultures if people do not value scientific achievement over accidentally giving offense to a section of the population who appear to be accumulating noticeable power.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Right, the Volunteer Auxiliary Thought Police are out in force and are looking for blood.

      As a commenter above noted, can you imagine how well a misogynist gay jerk like Isaac Newton would have fared under today’s Ministry of Sensitivity?

      As Raymond Chandler suggested in The Long Goodbye, culture’s great leaps forward tend to occur, such as the ancient Greeks, in cultures of misogynist gays.

  18. pamitha says:

    One thing I’ve noticed is the pressure on our female faculty. They feel immense responsibility to mentor female students, to be visible, to be perfect. They are constantly asked to serve on committees, meet with students, and do other service work, so that we can have something approaching gender parity at these events. Although the motivations are good, to get more women comfortable in STEM by providing visible female roll models, the toll on the few women there now is large. I’ve seen several be very active for their first few years as a junior faculty member, then burn out, become resentful and retreat to their lab, refusing to do any more service. Being a female faculty member is hard enough without bearing a disproportionate service burden to help correct the wrongs of the past as well.

    • Rahul says:

      I went to grad school at an engineering department that had exactly one female faculty member (out of ~15). There was immense pressure from the funding agencies, university deans, diversity affairs etc. to hire more female faculty.

      Most of the existing faculty & the hiring committee were perfectly nice people. Not misogynists at all, at least to the extent one can judge these things. I found it hard to believe they were biased or weeding out the women applicants purposely.

      I don’t know what the structural reasons were that we ended up with only one female professor but my point is sometimes these pressures to conform to some idealistic notion of inclusiveness is a bit silly.

  19. carrie says:

    Thanks for this post. I agree with Phil’s points, especially the part about this one guy and his shirt not being the problem, but rather representing the less tangible issues many women face on a routine basis.

    My suggestion for moving STEM workplace culture in the right direction would be for the senior folks to encourage or facilitate junior women telling male colleagues when they make comments that are felt to be demeaning or inappropriate. I’m a female graduate student working in a department with only men as senior faculty. Due to the built in hierarchy of academia [plus some bad initial receptions to my efforts] I don’t feel comfortable telling my male superiors when they make comments that I feel are inappropriate or demeaning to me personally or women in general. I think if we can somehow make this sort of feedback routine it won’t be perceived as such a threat to the hierarchy or as women “whining”. I know that the men I work with don’t mean to say things that are offensive or make me feel like I don’t belong, and yet sometimes some of them do. Unfortunately my experience so far suggests that women often pay a higher price in trying to bring attention to these issues at an individual level than they do in simply ignoring or accepting the comments in the first place. And so the cycle continues…

    • G.H. says:

      It is a personal decision to protect oneself or speak out. For me, it often comes down to responsibilities for my family versus those I have as a citizen. Just look at the debates on torture from professional associations like the ASIL (American Society for International Law) during the early Bush years, where only one person dared to say what everyone was thinking (and he was so old and famous that he could do it with impunity).

      But others that tried to speak out just silently lost their jobs or got demoted. So it makes sense to carefully consider the consequences if you are in a vulnerable position. This is true for both sides – leading to a lot of frustrations that build up and explode in the strangest moments.

      That said, without activists who were willing to live “only for the cause” nothing much would have changed. Those persons did accept, that they and their families might pay a terrible price for their convictions (by others and themselves) and still did it.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        People who spoke out who lost their jobs include Larry Summers, James D. Watson, and Jason Richwine.

        • G. H. says:

          Who are not examples of persons in shiny white armor… but that was not the point. Regardless of which side you are on in a debate that is dividing society – you have to decide, if you are willing to speak out and shape your surroundings but possibly gamble with your future and the personal backlash, that can not only harm you but also innocent bystanders like your family – or don’t speak out and pass on the opportunity to actively shape your surroundings trading it for security. This is true for both sides… if you are for or against something, you will be the target for the other side.

          Some excellent problems are btw presented in the book “Dangerous Territories: Struggles for Difference and Equality in Education” (Leslie G. Roman,Linda Eyre) with all the pitfalls of the equality vs/and diversity and other debates nicely presented in theory and practical application.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            “Who are not examples of persons in shiny white armor… but that was not the point.”

            The point is that they are Bad and they had it coming.

            Seriously, have we given up wholly on objective principles like freedom of inquiry and expression and everything from now is going to be about Whose Team You Are On?

            • Phil says:

              Civilization relies on rules and all cultures have norms.

              Some people have a hard time with the concept that sometimes a balance had to be struck. You have a right to swing your fist around but not to hit me in the face. You have a right to free speech but it doesn’t allow you to yell Fire in a crowded theater.

              Current mainstream culture is such that calling a black employee “boy” is a completely unacceptable. If I did it I would be fired. I think that’s fine.

              As far as I know the government didn’t force Summers to resign. He upset a lot of people and they said so, and his employer decided to fire him. If you want to say Summer should be able to say what he wants then you should say people who don’t like him should be able to say whatever they want.

              • G. H. says:

                What I think we are touching here is the question of which reaction is acceptable to take by society, an employer, a group another individual against each other, if they are of different opinion on a fundamental question that has impact on their lives. And this one is not easily answered…

                While rules should change with society, our democracies are based upon some rules that are so basicc that they should not be changed – ever. In Germany theses rules, a little like the bill of rights, have extra protections to make it impossible, that even a populist lead majority can ever change them through abuse of the democratic instruments (as it unfortunately happened).

                For other changes, there are legal codes that list the legal and illegal actions (in the continental european law tradition). These traditions btw do recognize stricter borders to free speech than the US tradition, prohibiting some forms of free speech as too dangerous to allow (eg nazi agitation) – but they have to be exactly defined in law.

                I know that in the US gender debate, the term “free speech” has been high-jacked by conservatives, who try to misinterpret it for their political agenda, but that does not mean we can or should just disregard it completely.

                Free speech is one of those basic principles that has a twofold protection: It does not only allow you to say whatever you want publicly, it also protects you from actions that were taken against you because you said it. This is especially difficult if I don’t agree and see it as a danger to democracy in it’s own right – as sexism – even casual and thoughtless one – surely can be.

                And this is the crux of the discussion in this sub-thread. What is still appropriate, what do I have to tolerate and where does it start to endanger basic democratic principles that are necessary to make democracy resilient to destructive factors.

                Cases have gone both ways continuously but it it was established by the High Courts and the ECHR, that you cannot be fired for speaking out. This protection is also more important than the right of employers to freely fire and hire or any damage to his or her brand or business that they might suffer as a consequence.

                Another point to consider: Changing the rules in favour of one group or another can be a problem later as – especially in law systems with codified rules – the same rule applies to all cases. That is also why it was only possible to allow for “positive discrimination” (official term for the law in Austria and Germany, that as long as there are less women than men in a certain field women of equal qualification have to be chosen for a job) through a lengthy process of constitutional changes and only as a limited exception to the general rule that all are equal.

                So it is a fine line one has to walk here.

  20. David Condon says:

    While I agree with much of the conclusion, I strongly disagree with the methodology. News reports are full of examples in which anecdotes are deliberately chosen because they’re outliers and then analyzed to death. This blog regularly criticizes researchers for significantly more minor errors. Most scientists simply don’t wear shirts like that on camera. Because of the complete lack of representativeness, the only conclusions which can be drawn are subjective. This can often lead to excessively long rants which tend to go nowhere. The people who already agree with you vouch their support, and the people who disagree state their disagreement. The long-term result is the deterioration of the quality of comments. If you’re interested in this issue, I would encourage you to look around for something objective, and to stay away from fad news items like this one. That is my subjective opinion.

  21. Victoria says:

    As a woman trying to carve a path in a STEM field, I think I understand where Anonymous is going with this (though I could be wrong). When the outrage surfaced over Dr. Taylor’s shirt, I was disturbed, but for different and conflicting reasons:

    If people were willing to browbeat one of us (in the science community) into a sense of guilt, would it one day happen to me?

    If one scientist’s crowning achievement in his career was eclipsed by pearl-clutching, would it happen to me?

    Do people in STEM fields need standardized sensitivity and harassment training? Or do people in high-profile scientific projects need PR training? Or both? Should we teach potential scientists not only HOW to think (to solve, say, a mathematical problem), but WHAT to think (to solve a social problem)?

    It seems to me that Dr. Taylor wasn’t humiliated for its own sake (I’m not that cynical), but rather made an example of. I didn’t like that damned shirt either, but that wasn’t the point. One day, I could say or do something wrong (being a socially awkward shut-in), and when I did, would I have to be similarly lynched in the court of public opinion?

    More importantly, did being a woman make me exempt from this kind of backlash, if I were to step out of line like Taylor did? If yes, then there is a problem. If no, there is STILL a problem. I’m not sure if this backlash exists in the defense of women, rather than in defense of groupthink (as A suggests). And that is the biggest problem of all.

    Just my two cents about the discussion between you two. Please feel free to correct me if I misinterpreted them.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Right, it could happen to you.

      A lot of people assume “It couldn’t happen to me, I’m one of the Good People.” But Your Permanent Record is searchable, so you could wind up in the future being fired like Brendan Eich for some violation in the past back when everybody was assuring you that of course being against, say, pederasty was a good subject for political activism on either side. But once one side triumphed, the firings began.

    • Chris Waigl says:

      Well, first of all, if it reassures you, as a woman in most STEM fields (I don’t know yours specifically – cultures vary) you’ll be judged on your clothing a lot more than Dr. Taylor could ever expect to be. But more importantly, it would be impossible for you or me to do the exact same thing as he did as the gender imbalance already precedes us. So what would the equivalent be? Already wearing a big Hawaii shirt isn’t the same thing for a man as for a woman. Let’s say you wear a casual summer dress (um, it’s winter, but let’s pretend there’s no seasonal issue) with big cartoon muscle hunks in loin cloths. That’s obviously a) not equivalent to female pin-ups and b) not going to signal to any men that men are regarded by scientists as mere muscle-hunks — because the whole room is full of 90% men who completely dominate the field. So. (You’d still be dragged through the wringer and ridiculed, no worry here.)

      So let’s try a better analogy. You’re the lead of a key group in a large and highly publicised scientific effort that’s life-broadcast on TV. And you wear a shirt or dress or blouse with ministrel-type blackface print. Or Washington Redskins logos and name lettering (*). Do you think you should be exempt from criticism if you did something like that? I certainly don’t.

      You’re asking a bigger question and you’re asking it in a loaded way. First of all, where cookie-cutter sensitivity training exists, it is for the main reason to protect the institution, so it is a cover-your-ass exercise more often than a genuine teaching moment that is apt to reach those that would need it most. Though there are exceptions — as always it depends on the people that run something. (I was actually ranting to one of my mentors about the questionable quality of the anti-sexual-harrassment training that was recently started at my workplace, and while she didn’t disagree she pointed out that at the very least it enabled us to talk about it and made it harder to pretend it’s a non-existent problem. And she was right, though I still would have liked a better presentation.)

      Science doesn’t happen in vacuum either, and ALSO depends on the people who make it. Let me go out on a limb here and affirm that one of the more pernicious cultural myths about science is that all we need to train people (the brightest minds!) in is HOW to think, and someone else would take care of the rest. Well clearly that’s not the case. For example, someone would have advised Dr. Taylor in this case that wearing the parrot shirt would be preferable to the pin-up shirt… More importantly though, scientists make decisions about who to hire, who gets taken on a field campaign, who gets pushed and who gets discouraged. They also make decision what to work on and have to defend these decisions at least within the institution (including funding agencies), if not at least occasionally in public. This is not a value-free environment, so we SHOULD teach scientists how to develop, weigh and debate what values to pursue. Fairness and non-discrimination are such values, and indeed, many institutions now hold their faculty and staff explicitly to them. As to other ethical standards (no cheating, disclosure of conflicts of interests etc etc.). Do you call this “teach what to think”?

      And in the end you have to look at outcomes to figure out if the research enterprise is working. This is true both for all kinds of goals. Are scientists working on the right questions, stuff that needs solving? If not, why not? Running many kinds of research projects requires a lot more than knowing how to think. It also requires to be able to collaborate across disciplines, maybe in an environment of contested, scarce resources. Imagine a few oceanographers, statisticians, marine biologists, sonar remote sensing scientists, microbiologists, chemists and a stray sea ice researcher on a 1-month cruise on a research vessel. Whether the science that comes out of this is good or not depends on a heck lot more than how well every individual masters his or her own discipline. If there are still issues around dealing with cultural diversity or treating the female team members fully as colleagues, well, it’s going to impact the whole project. In many cases the way out is still to recruit new researcher in one’s own likeness (ie, men from cultures with a long institutionalised science tradition). This strategy is now progressively seen as unacceptable.

      (*) A US football team that has been in long-standing litigation by Native American representatives over the demeaning nature of the name and logo, to the point that several mainstream publications have ceased printing the team name.

    • Phil says:

      I think it’s ludicrously hyperbolic to say Taylor was “lynched.” As far as I know he hasn’t even lost his job. He apologized (apparently sincerely); most people seem to have accepted his apology and many prominent people have said so in a public way. I don’t think that’s a lynching. There’s plenty of overheated rhetoric on both sides and I don’t think it is helping in deciding what to do in the future.

      Whether it is fair to publicly object to what Taylor wore and what he said may just be an area where reasonable people disagree. I am reluctantly forced to this opinion because I know people who I consider reasonable who think it is not OK. I think it is fair, indeed to me it seems obvious that it’s fair, but perhaps it’s still a good exercise for me to explain my reasons. I mentioned some of these in my post.

      The guy wore his shirt and said what he said on international television. This is not a case like that billionaire whose private cell phone conversation was released to the press. I think this is relevant. And this isn’t something accidental like his fly was unzipped. He chose the shirt and he chose his words. If you say “hey, look at the shirt this guy wore,” that’s only a humiliation (or a “lynching”) if there’s something wrong with him wearing the shirt. Which there is. As I said in my post, what are we supposed to do, act like we didn’t see it?

      As far as I know the hullabaloo started when some women tweeted things like “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.” I don’t have it in me to say that these women, who I do believe were genuinely bothered by the shirt, should keep quiet about it, at least in public. I just can’t endorse that view.

      Less importantly, I find that ironic that it’s the “leave the guy alone” crowd that keeps bringing up Taylor’s name. The tweets that I’ve seen cited for having started this whole thing did not mention it. For some reason I keep forgetting the guy’s name, perhaps because it’s not very important to me. I, and many other people, keep trying to move the discussion AWAY from this one guy, and on to the real problem…but that’s just not allowed to happen. I do understand the argument from compassion — let’s not forget that societal movements affect individuals, etc. But I wish we could move on to discuss the bigger issues. It isn’t the people (like me) who want to change the culture who keep Taylor’s name in the spotlight.

      Finally, I’m OK with the idea that if I do something shameful in public, I might be publicly raked over the coals for it. That’s fair. As I’ve previously noted, when it comes to acts that are genuinely shameful, I’m pro-shaming.

  22. Chris Waigl says:

    Phil: Thanks for your post. I completely concur. I don’t want Dr. Taylor punished, disciplined or yelled at. I don’t even know what his personal attitudes to women in STEM are, and think the question is irrelevant. For all I know he’s the greatest guy female space navigation engineers could have the fortune to meet. I love his tattoos and nerdiness. This changes not a iota of the analysis of his choices in shirt and language and what they signify in the light of the role of women in the STEM community.

    I am completely flabbergasted why we should have to choose between pride in the Rosetta team’s (including Dr. Taylor’s) achievements and a vision of a respectful and welcoming attitude towards women. I want both and I wish more gentlemen from the mainstream faction would have the generosity of sprit to see that the critics have a rather hefty point.

    (Disclosure: I’m a geophysicist, use statistics and am affiliated with people who are affiliated with space flight missions. I’m also European and totally proud of the Rosetta/Phinae people. I usually comment here under a pseudonym but think I should put my real name on this.)

  23. Chris Waigl says:

    PS: To clarify, I’m also female. (Since a previous commenter made a remark.)

    PPS: Since I’ve added a comment already, one more thing. I’m massively annoyed that the belittling backlash against the criticism is keeping this alive. I didn’t even say anything until it arrived. It is disappointing that we don’t even have enough of a consensus to go through with the most efficient and dignified way of handling things like that: failure is pointed out, failure is corrected, guy apologizes, everyone moves on. Because people dared correctly pointing out sexism among our heroes! Well, they’re my heroes as well and it annoys me to no end to be pulled into side battles like this one because the gentlemen feel scratched in the purity of their worship. Yup, the world is messy, and sexism (as well as the other exclusionary cultural presets) lurks where none of us likes to see it. Deal with it – we women have to as well.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “I’m massively annoyed that the belittling backlash against the criticism is keeping this alive. ”

      In other words, why doesn’t the other side just shot up?

      • Chris Waigl says:

        I presume you mistyped “shut up”.

        Well, it’s like Dan Simpson wrote above: “And, incidentally, he made a mistake. He was told it was a problem. He acknowledged it. He apologised. He moved on. That is how adults behave.” Those who style themselves as his defenders don’t have this level of maturity.

        Of course, it’s a reasonably free society, so they can say what they want. Or even not just talk but try to discredit the original critics. But they’ll be judged by their actions.

    • Phil says:

      Chris, your addendum that you are female made me smile, especially because one of my friends just told me about a grad school experience. She had submitted a paper to a journal using just her last name and first initial. One of the reviewers thought the paper was good and flew her in to give a talk (I’ll mention that this never happened to me in grad school!). When the guy picked her up at the airport he was surprised and said “Oh, from your paper I couldn’t tell you’re a woman!” She said it wasn’t his surprise that bothered her, it was the fact that he clearly meant his statement as a compliment.

      • Chris Waigl says:

        When I was first studying physics, I was naive enough to think of it as a compliment, too. A while ago, my first publication since returning to science (after a career in the commercial software sector) came out, and I had to make a decision about how I wanted my name to appear. I’ve gone by “Chris” since I was 10 and most friends call me by this name (with the exception of those who knew me while I lived in France, where I went by my full first name because it’s more euphonious in French). I hesitated a lot. I liked the formality of full first name + middle initial, and went with it, as some colleagues to Mike is Michael F. Lastname, and Dee has a multi-syllabic Thai first name that I would have to look up. This sort of thing. But I did spend a thought on how “Chris” would come with the assumption that I’m male and probably be an advantage. On the other hand, what flipped me over to “Christine” was that *I* enjoy seeing female names on publications and conference listings. As female visibility is meaningful to me, I don’t want to hide behind a unisex name myself… It’s complicated.

  24. Martyn says:

    Thanks Phil. I agree with everything you write and I am surprised by the hostile reaction.

    I work in two different fields – biomedical science and statistical computing – where representation of women is starkly different. I’m not saying everything is perfect in biomedicine but the trend is clearly in the right direction. When I go to an R meeting and see how under-represented women are, especially at the senior level, I think “Oh no. How are we still in this situation?” I would like to reiterate a point you made above. If we throw up cultural barriers to women, like casual sexism (and Rebecca gives an excellent example) or bullying, then some will persist and suffer, but others will simply choose to work in another field where they don’t have to put up with our BS. That’s our loss collectively, although men may individually benefit from the lack of competition.

    • Rahul says:

      The logical jump is when you move from the differential in female representation to explaining it by cultural barriers.

      Barriers and discrimination are not a necessary condition to female-under-representation.

      Why just R? Go to any Linux meet, or programming session or the coding offices of a firm and women are grossly underrepresented. Is all / most of this attributable to casual sexism?

      • Martyn says:

        Well, I use R as an example because I am a member of the R core development team and will soon be co-president of the R Foundation. As such I have some understanding of, and responsibility for, what goes on in that community.

        • Rahul says:

          So how much of the under-representation in the R community is attributable to casual sexism, harassment etc. versus other more fundamental structural issues like women in general choosing (whether by genetics or sociological conditioning) less to go into technical fields, especially programming etc.

          • Martyn says:

            My multi-disciplinary research institute covers epidemiology, virology, molecular biology, genetics, epigenetics, pathology, nutrition, and metabolomics, which I have broadly summed up as “biomedical science”. I cetainly think these qualify as “technical fields” and we don’t seem to have the egregious under-representation of women that I see in statistical computing.

            • Rahul says:

              That just modifies the question. Do you think less women go into statistical computing versus bio-medical science because they just want to or is statistical computing actively sexist, misogynist, harassing etc. Can you give specific examples of how women get singled out and harassed in the R community?

              There are other areas outside your institute like physics, engineering, electronics, astronomy that are also highly male dominated. Should we assume the key reason is harassment & sexism?

              To restate: When you see a disparity in participation in Subject A versus Subject B is harassment & discrimination the most likely explanation?

              • Steve Sailer says:

                It’s almost as if women go into life sciences rather than the death sciences because the like babies more than they like nuclear bombs.

              • Andrew says:

                Hey, I like babies more than nuclear bombs too!

              • Martyn says:

                Of course women go into other fields “because they want to”. The question is why? What societal, behavioural, or cultural factors are in place that influence women away from physics, engineering, etc..? As I wrote earlier, if we’re not drawing on the pool of available talent then it’s our loss.

                I’m off now, but I refer you to “A Conversation about R’s Gender Gap” on this page: (scroll down to find it) and references therein.

              • Steve Sailer says:

                Rahul asks: “When you see a disparity in participation in Subject A versus Subject B is harassment & discrimination the most likely explanation?”

                When there’s a lot of money available, then it’s got to be Discrimination. For example, Dr. Faust got $50 million from Larry Summers of other people’s money after he was a little too frank in public about the reasons for sex differences. She used the $50 million to make enough friends to become president of Harvard herself. Dr. Faust is a role model.

          • Different Anonymous says:

            As a woman on the STEM track since middle school, I can say that I loved programming, statistics, and genetics right up until I met some awfully sexist people working in those fields. I understand that it might be a legitimate explanation for some (small) portion of the observed gender gap, but having people continually suggest that my genetics made me ill-suited for my major was exhausting. I try to avoid people like that now, and that means I stick to a slightly more female-friendly area of STEM. To me, my decision-making process (repeated across many women facing similar situations) seems like a much more likely explanation for why things are the way they are.

            (I have since encountered plenty of wonderful computer scientists and statistical geneticists, but my initial experience was just so bad that I chose a different way to spend my effort and energy. In my opinion, even really interesting research cannot overcome an unwelcoming work environment and boorish coworkers.)

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “I work in two different fields – biomedical science and statistical computing – where representation of women is starkly different.”

      It’s almost as if women care more about the Life Sciences than the Death Sciences. Personally, I think the awesome thing any scientist ever said was, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” But I also can see why women might not find that as galvanizing.

      • Rahul says:

        A difference may just be a difference. It’s the automatic jump that any difference means a bad difference that’s hard to understand.

        More than 70% of the PhDs awarded in English Lit & Psychology last year went to women. Should we assume those departments harass men?

        • Steve Sailer says:

          English departments likely do harass men and non-lesbian women and expose them to hostile environments (see A.S Byatt’s great novel “Possession,” (the inspiration for the even greater “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard) in which the heterosexual lead characters are harassed by homosexual feminists with tenure).

          But nobody much cares. As Lenin said, what matters in politics is “Who? Whom?”

  25. G.H. says:

    Interesting discussion. I just want to add a few points to the environment your question lives in, as we are talking about a global scientific community and globally funded programs, scientific leaders that might not be from our own clutural background and so on.

    I assume “THE” STEM workplace is geographically and intellectually situated in the US or GB and you refer to “culture” in this context? Also “right direction” refers to policy decisions based upon discussions and topics in those countries? And are you also including others besides the scientists in your question (I think you do, it’s just to show the complexities). Which rules of human interaction are applicable globally in STEM workplaces in the scientific community in e.g. Iran, India, the Koreas, Russia, Chile? Which rules take precedent when you are visiting a STEM workplace – e.g. in Singapur? What is the balance between intercultural aspects and other important factors like scientific knowledge and experience?

    Equality and friendly environments, where everyone tries to minimise friction by provoking others is one of the hardest things to achieve in an international setting (or short: Living together in Peace as a species is hard! – and Gender is just one aspect, Diversity another, throw in all the individual experiences, cultures, religions and customs). We do not even have common definitions for most of the basics (try something “simple” like human rights, you will go crazy) that go beyond the UN frameworks and their national translations (English-German is a pain, German-French or Russian even more and so on), interpretations and regional incarnations (Austria in my case), different legal frameworks and quite simply, different concepts of basic terms.

    I’m pointing this out, exactly because I am from the german speaking part of the world, that does have more or less similar views, rulesets and cultural background (globally speaking) and even here there are problems in translating concepts and discussions e.g. in the field of “Gender Studies” because it is hard to translate all the taboos of national debates into explicit language that has to be transported alongside the purely factual debate for a third party to really understand and adapt the concepts.

    I would therefore approach this as a hard ethnological challenge for any researcher and activist. Public statements on globally accessible platforms are therefore not helpful (there are great books on the rules of conduct in the field for ethnologists ;) ). More often than not these messages are rooted in national debates and are meant for an audience that can already translate them.

    Educating the actors of the individual incident is not the focus and anything happening to them – like loosing their jobs – is seen as “collateral damage”. Blaming and an environment of “Angst” is not a good basis for real change of behaviour – I mean behaviour that gets internalised and transferred to the next generation – something we should be keen on doing if we really want to change it for good and avoid an ugly backlash.

    I do know that there are different opinions about the points I have raised and acknowledge this (public shaming and blaming seems to be a “sport” as of late that has been imported to the german discussion without being fully understood) but I thought the discussion might profit from a different viewpoint.

    • Phil says:

      Yes, I’m thinking of US culture as I know it. I have also been to conferences in Europe and have contact with some European scientists, and I think I’d know if things were radically different there but I might be wrong about that. And as for the rest of the world, I know very little about their workplace cultures when it comes to this kind of thing.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Most men cannot understand why sexism is a problem if they haven’t talked about it with women. (Not that they should have to understand it. If a bunch of people find it offensive, they should stop whether or not they understand.)

    For white men that want to understand the problem, do the following exercise. A black professor walks into a classroom wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a powerful black man, an attractive white female at his side, and a group of white servants. At the top of the shirt, it says, “The Way It’s Supposed To Be!” The classroom consists of 48 black students and one other white student. One of the black students shouts out, “Nice shirt!” to which the professor smiles and responds, “We can always dream, can’t we?”

  27. Anonymous says:

    I think by far the best discussion of this is here:

  28. Nick says:

    I’m glad someone is posting this king of thing, because guys do need to shape up. But (and there is always a “but”) I’m not sure this is entirely a “STEM” issue. Is it so hard to believe that a male lawyer would send emails with sexist jokes, or a male businessman has a dirty screensaver, or a male salesman treats women he works with with disrespect, or a male politician pressures the interns for sex? I don’t think we’ve really come that far along that this doesn’t happen anymore, and the mandatory 2 hours of training isn’t sufficient to fix it. So to say that the sexist STEM culture is why women don’t go into STEM doesn’t completely fit with the fact that women go into other fields where guys are just as loutish. Not to defend the defenders, but I’m sure that some of their actions are explained as a reaction to seeing this as a case of beating up on the nerds.

    Having said all that, the fact that all areas are flawed shouldn’t give people in STEM a pass if, in fact, the nerds deserve some beating up (and they do deserve some beating up for this shirt incident – although reasoned articles like this post are certainly better for producing more light than the flame wars on other parts of the interwebs). Further, if the STEM superiority complex of “we are *definitely* better than a bunch of soft-batch communications majors” can be harnessed for good, then by all means, let’s kick out the brogrammers and clean up lab culture by acknowledging the failings of men everywhere and use that to do better than them. And especially given the fact that most guys in STEM fields know what it is like to get the short end of the stick (socially speaking) it would make a lot of sense if there was more empathy in this community than in others.

    • Phil says:

      It is for sure not just a STEM issue. I’m so burned out from this whole thing that I don’t recall if I said this in my post or in a comment (and I’m too tired to check), but there are bigger problems in the military and finance and other areas. And some people (including a woman I know) have told me there’s a similarly hostile environment towards men in some professions, also based on “little” stuff like comments and jokes and innuendo. I’m not focusing on STEM because it’s the worst culture with these kinds of problems, but because it’s the culture I’m in, that I know the most about, that my female colleagues come from, and that has substantial readership of this blog. I wouldn’t know how to begin to change the military culture, but I can try to do my part in STEM.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        The reason feminists are targeting STEM at present is two-fold:

        – There’s not much left to target. They won huge victories in the law schools, business schools, and humanities a generation or more ago. Diminishing marginal returns has set in with a vengeance. The math department isn’t very important or wealthy but what else is there to go after? As a friend said, they are like a victorious army bayoneting the fleeing stragglers from the losing army who are hiding in the weeds.

        – There is, however, a lot of money in Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley has been largely immune to paying the Diversity Tax imposed on most of American business over the last 40 years. Jesse James has been trying to shake down Silicon Valley since the 1990s, but they just laughed at him. Now Rev. Jesse has teamed up with Team Feminism, and that’s a more potent combination than just a race hustler by himself.

        Phil, if you are feeling burned out, you should think about why that is. You’ve said at vast length what our culture wants you to say, but you are smart enough to realize it’s not very convincing. Getting all worked up over a sample size of one guy with tattoos and a tasteless shirt probably seems pretty silly to you now that you’ve thought about it. You keep getting comments that are annoying because you can’t think of very good logical / factual responses.

        I know it’s scary too stare at Occam’s Razor and realize that the simplest explanation is that the reigning dogmas of our age aren’t true. So here’s the thing: you don’t have to publicly confess. You don’t have to get yourself Larry Summersized. Just resolve not to go out of your way to make things worse. If you can’t think of anything true to say, don’t say anything.

        This strategy worked pretty well behind the Iron Curtain: You don’t have to be a hero, but just show enough self-respect to not be a facilitator.

        • Nick says:

          He’s not getting worked up about one guy with tattoos and a shirt. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s the fact that an offensive shirt, combined with an unwelcome touch, combined with a NSFW joke about some woman on TV, combined with pre-judging the quality of one’s work based on gender, etc. etc. is not the kind of experience that I would want to go through day in and day out; and therefore, I don’t want anyone else to go through it either. I don’t view myself as a particularly empathetic person – I’m a stereotypical math nerd with the social skills of a disgruntled weasel. And if you haven’t seen something like this a thousand times then you haven’t been paying very much attention to your workplace.

          Anyone with an IQ 3 standard deviations above the mean with an interest in STEM surely endured enough crap in high school to agree that a thousand small indignities can add up to a lot of unnecessary pain. So it’s surprising that the STEM community doesn’t appear to be any more empathetic to this sort of thing than anywhere else.

          He’s trying to change a social norm that he finds immoral. Just because women have had the right to vote for almost 100 years doesn’t mean that the way women are treated is always and everywhere ok. This is low hanging fruit to improve the lives of millions and I can’t understand why people are so resistant to it.

  29. Akiva says:

    The point: you missed it. If only women and gay men care about clothes, how come straight male reporters are totally obsessed with asking about and reporting on women’s clothes?

    Moving on to more interesting things, thanks for making this post, and thanks to whoever syndicated it to StatsBlogs. I see it and I appreciate it.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “how come straight male reporters are totally obsessed with asking about and reporting on women’s clothes?”

      They are? Which straight male reporters? Woodward and Bernstein? Seymour Hersh? Mike Royko? Hunter S. Thompson? Bill Simmons?

      Tom Wolfe showed some interest in women’s clothes for a few years in the 1960s but I can’t recall him showing any interest in women’s clothes since maybe Radical Chic in 1969.

  30. Different Anonymous says:

    Let me start by saying I’m a woman at the intersection of a traditionally-male field (statistics) and a female-friendly one (public health). I notice that when I attend more statistical or computer science-oriented lectures/events that I encounter more awkward comments about gender.

    Here’s a fun story. A few months into my master’s degree, I dragged a bunch of my (mostly-male) cohort to a talk I was excited about because the speaker was a big name and we had just read a few of his articles in my favorite class. The speaker had a lot of sports examples in his talk, which is fine because (1) these demonstrate concepts more easily than something that requires a lot of specialty knowledge and (2) I absolutely love sports. At some point in his talk, the speaker made an off-the-cuff remark that he should probably diversify his content and that perhaps shopping examples would appeal more to the women in the audience. It was humiliating to feel a bunch of my new classmates all suddenly turn to me to see my reaction. It’s hard to explain why it made me so uncomfortable, but it made me acutely aware of the fact that, as the only woman in that group, some people see me not as an individual but as the token female responsible for providing “the female perspective” on things. That’s a huge responsibility I don’t want to shoulder — if I fail, am I failing my whole gender?

    Andrew, this scenario should sound vaguely familiar to you since you were the speaker. I don’t think you believe women are less capable statisticians, just like I don’t think Matt Taylor has a lower opinion of his female coworkers simply because he wore a really unprofessional shirt to work one day. But when you are just starting out and you’re still trying to figure out how to belong in the professional world, you look for signs that you can succeed in becoming a respected member of your profession. Stuff like this doesn’t help with that.

    Now obviously, I haven’t left the field as a result of this one little comment (in fact, I doubled down by entering a PhD program). However, it did make me worry for a few months that maybe I was entering a field where this type of thing would be a common occurrence. In my experience, the people who claim that the “little things” don’t matter — I mean, women couldn’t possibly be influenced by silly things like this, right? — are usually the people who have forgotten what it was like to be young, impressionable, and unsure of the future.

    • Andrew says:


      Your point is fair enough. I do feel that sports examples can exclude people (men as well as women) and I do like to take a moment to make this point, often counterbalancing them with examples from cooking or sewing or shopping.

      To the extent that we illustrate statistics using leisure activities, I think it’s useful to consider a diversity of possibilities. For me, at least, being forced to go outside my comfort zone of sports examples is a good thing in that it pushes me to think harder about the underlying principles. For similar reasons, I like to avoid over-use of simple medical treatment-and-control examples when discussing causal inference, especially given that I often work in social science where the interventions have a different flavor in that they tend to involve more of the active participation of the subjects of the intervention.

      For all these reasons, I think it’s good to move beyond sports examples (or, when teaching probability, to move beyond coin flipping and die rolling). For the students who don’t like sports or aren’t familiar with the rules of baseball, it’s good to see examples from other areas. And for students who are familiar with sports, it’s good to shake them out of their rut.

      But really I can do this without directly bringing sex-roles into it, it’s fine to point out the diversity of examples without saying that any topic is particularly male or female. To the extent that some topics are gender-linked, that’s fine, but that can be implicit.

      To put it another way, I’m not at all claiming that women (or men) “couldn’t possibly be influenced by silly things like this”—indeed, I choose these examples in part because I do want to influence people, to get them to realize that something can be gained by moving outside the traditional statistics paradigms of dice games, sports, and medical trials. I just have to be a bit more careful about the messages I’m sending, which again is fair enough, and it’s something I do work on. Comments like yours are helpful.

      • Chris Waigl says:

        Different Anonymous tells a pointed anecdote. I have one to follow up. My partner used to work for a major US networking hardware vendor, and in this capacity, recruit on job fairs on a campus of a respected US university close to her location. The majority of students interested and suitable for this employer (in engineering, anyway) were from outside the US: South Asia, East Asia, some from Europe. Non native English speaking nerds (of both sexes). And the recruitment literature was full of baseball metaphors. Well, without going into the comical situations that might arise, that wasn’t a good choice.

        So yes, Andrew was right that sports metaphors can be quite exclusionary. It’s to your honour you saw that. Unfortunately, you let the thought run away with yourself instead of stopping it here — because even if sports is part of a male-marked socialization obviously it doesn’t mean that no women like sports. “Avoid too much sports for diversity” is a good idea; “avoid too much sports because women” is based on a stereotype. And if you have an audience with a single woman, well, whether she likes sports or not, she’ll have to deal with the stereotype one way or other. Ouch. So, bad move, and it must be unpleasant to be called out on your own comment thread like this — ouch again. But we all WILL make a misstep of this kind, and I’m glad she didn’t get too discouraged. (It’s happened to me, many times, and I’ve been brought up to make it visible, usually, in a friendly environment, by mock-outrage. If it had been me in your audience, chances are your attention would have been drawn to it.)

      • Different Anonymous says:

        Andrew, these are all good points. As someone in the “medical treatment-and-control” world, I like those examples, but I also see how they quickly become tiresome if your research is based on observational data with modest effect sizes. I actually like that Bayesian statistics has a pretty standard set of datasets that cover a wide range of topics. When else am I going to learn about US crime rates and pine processionary caterpillars in the same lecture?

        I feel like a bigger point here is that even egalitarian-minded people can contribute to STEM’s gender problem. Combined with more egregious sexism (I won’t get into it here, but there was a good reason I was worried the field of statistics might be hostile to women), these little things can become the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I don’t think Matt Taylor necessarily deserves to be fired or face any other public consequences for his poor decision. He apologized, and I doubt he’ll wear that to his next professional event. People can learn and move on. I can disapprove of his choice, feel sorry for him having his big accomplishment overshadowed, and appreciate an amazing scientific achievement all at the same time.

        (By the way, I was reluctant to even post my story, but you responded really well. You often talk about handling constructive criticism properly, and I think you’ve done a great job here.)

    • Martha says:

      Different Anonymous:

      Thanks for the sentences, ” It was humiliating to feel a bunch of my new classmates all suddenly turn to me to see my reaction. It’s hard to explain why it made me so uncomfortable, but it made me acutely aware of the fact that, as the only woman in that group, some people see me not as an individual but as the token female responsible for providing “the female perspective” on things. That’s a huge responsibility I don’t want to shoulder — if I fail, am I failing my whole gender?”

      Yes, yes, yes. This type of thing happening (especially repeatedly) is a big part of the pressure that women in STEM face. It can really wear you down. Some of my own experiences of this nature:

      In the early seventies, well-intended people decided it was a good idea to put at least one woman on each “decision-making” committee. Consequently, I was on an NSF graduate fellow selection committee before I was thirty, and hiring committees for tenured positions while I was still an assistant professor. The first wasn’t too bad, since there were two other woman on the committee (another was also under thirty. Word had it that the other subject area committees referred to ours as “The junior high committee.”) The second was awkward, since non-tenured people weren’t supposed to see applications for tenured positions.

      Then there was the professional society meeting where I was looked to to represent not only women but (probably more often) young people.

      And the responsibilities of being a role model when you ain’t really had one yourself, and when younger women are asking you about combining a career and children, but you don’t have children.

      People from racial minorities also face similar problems: The awkwardness of being expected to be a “representative” and the additional responsibilities of being asked to serve on committees, run special programs for minorities, etc. A lot of these additional pressures are consequences of people’s good intentions, so it’s awkward to say no or to point out the unintended consequences.

      Then there’s the awkwardness of attending a committee meeting in a colleague’s office, and finding when he closes the door that you are facing a large poster on the back of the door of a not-entirely-clothed woman.

      Yes, Nick’s comment about the straw that broke the camel’s back fits.

  31. A man says:

    I’m dropping in for one comment, and won’t respond to any follow-ups. I have no interest in getting into an extended flamewar. But I do think it is important to register that several of the commenters here are very much part of the problem. Steve Sailer, in particular, has been extremely offensive, and I want to register my disagreement with what he says.

    I know it is cowardly to say that anonymously and not stick around to defend it. But I do think that an unwillingness to call out bad behavior contributes to the problem. And I hope that at least registering this will do some small part toward offsetting the impression that some might take from this thread that this kind of attitude is acceptable.

  32. Jonas says:

    “How do we move the STEM workplace culture in the right direction?”

    Hi. Female working in social science statistics here.

    Discussions like this do a great deal to change workplace culture. The person who inspires me to persevere in academia – despite harassment and sexism, subtle and overt – is the same person who told me about the shirt and comment. The fact that he saw the article and wanted to talk to me about it meant a great deal.

    A colleague saw the article on my screen, and cared enough to engage in a conversation about it. He stated that he felt bad for Taylor, whose apology he felt was genuine. I agreed, but stated that the incident was an indication of a societal problem, in that the preponderance of images of women are sexual in nature, especially wen compared to the types of images we see of men. Our conversation was interrupted by a student coming to see me during my office hours. When the student left, my colleague came back and said he had been reading about the issue, and apologized for seeming to have defended casual sexism. He reacted not defensively, but as a scientist.

    These conversations do such a great deal to relieve the pressure to keep quiet and keep working, and make me believe I could withstand a career in STEM.

    • Phil says:

      A lot of aspects of this discussion make men feel defensive, and I understand the defensiveness myself and experience some of it. It’s easy to be supportive in that abstract but to feel put-upon when one’s own conduct is called into question.

      I have an uncomfortable example of my own, in fact. About ten years ago a female undergraduate who was a new intern in our group showed up in a shirt with something written or printed on it. I don’t remember what it was but I remember that it was something unusual and I was trying to read or to interpret it so I looked at her shirt for several seconds. Then I noticed she was looking right at me and had clearly seen me looking at her chest. I felt awkward, and said something like “I’m just trying to read your shirt, not looking at your body” or something like that. She was clearly embarrassed, as was I. A female colleague gave me some good-natured but pointed grief about it, and I couldn’t help but feel defensive.

      At the same time, I can’t dispute the fact that I made an undergraduate woman feel uncomfortable about the idea that an older male scientist would be staring at her body. I think about this occasionally because I still can’t figure out what I should have done differently (except not look at what is printed on students’ shirts, but I don’t like that solution). Perhaps I simply shouldn’t have said anything: I don’t feel awkward or embarrassed when I look at a male student’s tee shirt…maybe she was picking up on my embarrassment more than on my actions? Whatever. Point is, I too feel defensive about some of this stuff. But one just has to try to let that go.

  33. Krzysztof Sakrejda says:

    Thanks for writing this post, I think it is very helpful to focus on what can be done to improve the situation rather than getting distracted by the “I don’t see a problem/It could be genetics” people. One of the riskier but important approaches to improving an environment is to be ready for this stuff in meetings/talks. There’s no need to attack someone who wears a dumb shirt or states that girls must just be genetically inclined against doing math but, especially as a biologist, I’m fond of pointing out that the genetic explanation pre-supposes a _huge_ effect size if you apply it to explaining the lack of women in fields like physics. It’s hard to construct a genetic explanation that makes sense when you consider multiple fields (as Martyn points out above) and if the speaker is asked to consider it live I think it helps make something that’s an extreme view sound as extreme as it is, rather than just letting it pass as authoritative—or people catch themselves and back-pedal which is fine too, most of this stuff is not malicious.

  34. JH says:

    Obviously the shirt is a problem- dumb, probably harmful. Glad he apologized.

    But I’ll say something else– I was reading a New York Times article about sexism in academic science the other day, and immediately (and embarrassingly for me, since I was reading it at work), a large pop-up link to a topless Rihanna appeared in the lower-right corner, urging me to click away to an article about other topless celebrities. I couldn’t help but feel like if you wanted to understand the position of women in business and academia, the impersonal forces of capitalism and a willing media that will sexualize the images of women we are surrounded by, is every bit as important as individual male cluelessness and malice.

    • Phil says:

      Yeah, this is true, and it touches on something that I perhaps should have made explicit in the post: human beings are animals with brains that are wired to evaluate potential sexual partners and to take a special interest in sex. If we insist that co-workers (or indeed any other humans) are not allowed to think of each other that way, well, that really would require the “Thought Police” that the anti-feminists claim the rest of us are clamoring for. Of course it is possible for people to change the way they think — to overcome prejudices, to learn context for how people think and behave, even to deliberately change their interests and preferences to some extent — but when it comes to thinking about sex, and to perceptions of sexiness and desirability, people just are the way they are, to some extent.

      But although we are animals, with animalistic urges, our brains also have executive functions unmatched or unapproached by any other animal. We have limited control over how we think and feel about some issues, but enormous control over how we behave. Our mainstream is chock-a-block with sexual images, language, etc., etc., and although I am sometimes appalled by parts of it the truth is I think it’s way better than, say, Puritan society or Victorian society. I’m glad people have broad latitude to display their personalities in all of their aspects. Just NOT AT WORK. Outside of work, if someone is offensive to you, you can avoid them. If you don’t like the vibe in a bar or restaurant you can go to a different one. If a movie offends your sensibilities, don’t go. But no one should have to tolerate a hostile or unpleasant working environment unless the work is inherently hostile or unpleasant. (As a legal principle that only applies to “protected classes” such as women, disabled people, and racial minorities, and only protects them against hostility directed against their “class”, but as a moral principle I think it goes deeper).

      So, yeah, there is a lot of sexual imagery in society at large, and I’m sure you’re right that that contributes to what happens at work. But I, at least, don’t object to the very _principle_ of sexualized images if people are trying to sell cars or look good on a night out or wear a shirt that they like. As I said, there are many individual instances that I find appalling or objectionable, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Rihanna putting topless photos on the web (I have no idea who that is, although I’ve heard the name) or for that matter with scientists wearing shirts covered with pictures of space vixens. Just not at work.

      I doubt you disagree with this, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about so I’m putting it here.

      • JH says:

        My issue wasn’t with Rihanna or with her photos of herself per se. It’s that sexualization is so pervasive that not only is it more of a focus of the Grey Old Lady of Newspapers than ever before (and you can make what you want of that old NYTimes nom-de-plume in this context), but even within our phenomenological experience of the parts of the paper that we normally wouldn’t expect topless photos to show up– articles about sexism in academic science, for example. Now, I’m sure that internal research at NYTimes showed that its algorithm should show that picture to me at that point if it wanted to keep me on the site longer and click more articles and eventually pay for subscription or click on more ads for high-value products. But just because this is the result of impersonal profit maximizing behavior on the part of the firm (let’s say) rather than the prurience of individual media managers, does not mean it doesn’t infect our discourse and our umwelt in an ultimately problematic way.

        My understanding of survey research of young women is that they feel considerable pressure from female as well as male peers to sexualize themselves; I think that a very small percentage of (a representative sample of) college students said they “participated in” the hookup culture at their schools, but an overwhelming percentage felt that it dominated the social life at their schools. The ubiquity of pornography, especially for young people, undoubtedly shapes both how men react to women and how women react to one another. The images that we are surrounded by make a difference, whether or not we “choose” to be surrounded by them (and I’m not so sure how much choice we have at this point.)

  35. STEMama says:

    Kindest thanks for taking time to write and being willing to make mistakes and be misinterpreted – all in an effort to build a more welcoming and productive environment for all of us. I’m a STEM female and mom.

    Suggestion for improving the climate in STEM (for everyone, not just females):

    (1) Pretend that your [mother/sister/wife/daughter/closest female relative or friend/dearest representative of a minority] is with you all the time (at work, in social situations, etc). When someone says “xyz” ask yourself — “If my [female / minority figure whom I respect and love] were here, how would she feel?” or “Would I be ok if someone said this in front of my sister?”

    (2) When someone says “xyz” and a [female or minority] within earshot seems to be negatively affected by it (i.e., gasps, is left speechless, etc.) — ask the [female / minority] “Hey, are you ok?” in a friendly manner. It has been shown in social situations, that drawing attention to the negative effect a statement can have on the “victim” the person who caused the negative effect very carefully reconsiders their action.

    My two cents. Please cut me some slack on grammar and form, English is not my first language.

    Thank you.

  36. Di Cook says:

    Phil, I just want to say I really appreciate you writing this article. It is actions like this that can make ALL the difference for improving the workplace.

  37. G. H. says:

    Mean tas a reply to Krzysztof Sakrejda

  38. Anon says:

    Women don’t join STEM fields because they’re made uncomfortable by men like this, if it were than where is the evidence? Women don’t join STEM fields because they’re not interested in them. Furthermore, if they’re so delicate that this shirt or the idea that men might be sexually attracted to women would bother them then it’s probably not the field for them. It is not our responsibility to bow to the needs of women, especially those who claim to be equal yet want special treatment. This mentality has caused men to cower before their female co-workers, they know the slightest misstep means a call to HR and the loss of their job.

    Let’s not forget that this shirt was made by a woman and given to him as a gift.

    >I knew someone in college (and who did better than me in the physics courses we took together) who told me she didn’t pursue science in part because she didn’t want to face a hostile work environment every day…not her exact words, but she told me a few things she’d run into, each individual one a small thing: inappropriate jokes, leers, comments…

    It’s simply not the work for her. She is too emotionally weak to handle it and it’s nobodies responsibility to change for her. And who’s to say these things are coming from men and not other women? Women are far more likely to be harassed by other women (especially in the workplace) and they’re far more likely to be bothered by it when coming from women.

    Here’s an interesting experience from a woman who’s in charge of an office full of women:

    There’s a lot of research out there about womens in the workplace that’s worth checking out.

    “The changing of the boards: The impact on firm valuation of mandated female board representation” by Kenneth R. Ahern and AMy K. Dittmar

    “Diversity and Success of Organizations” by Antje Buche, Monika Jungbauer-Gans, Annekatrin Niebuhr and Cornelius Peters. Universitat Erlangen-Nurnberg & Christian-AlbrechtsUniversitat zu Kiel, Zeitshcrift fur Soziologie Volume 42 Issue 6.

    • Andrew says:


      Not to get into all the details of your comment, but I completely disagree with this statement of yours:

      It’s simply not the work for her. She is too emotionally weak to handle it and it’s nobodies responsibility to change for her.

      Since when did it become the rule that you can’t do science if you’re emotionally sensitive?? People vary a lot in all sorts of attributes, including sensitivity to rude behavior. Maybe we should all work to be less sensitive to such things, but in the meantime there’s a lot of work to be done, and I think it’s ridiculous to want to exclude people from science or technology work just because they don’t enjoy being insulted.

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