A Feminist Walks Into a YouTube Science Video…

A Tale of Two #Shirtstorms & Science Communication Sexism

Cristen Conger
Mar 16, 2016 · 11 min read

Who has two thumbs and wore a feminist sweatshirt on a YouTube science video?

Forecast calls for shirtstom.

And like an absentminded Zeus with a vagina, I unleashed a #shirtstorm of rage in the video’s comment section.

In addition to hosting the gender-focused podcast and YouTube edutainment show Stuff Mom Never Told You, I also guest host for the terrific HowStuffWorks science show BrainStuff. My colleagues who write and produce it are passionately committed to delivering heavily researched nerdy knowledge to their mostly-dude YouTube audience.Wanna know why spicy food makes your nose run or how long fingernails can grow? BrainStuff has you covered.

My #shirtstorm video on the concept of “power dressing” was no different. BrainStuff wordsmith and Stuff to Blow Your Mind co-host Christian Sager thoroughly investigated and scripted the topic per usual, and you can even check out its transcript and sources in the video’s description.

But nevermind facts. My feminist sweatshirt screamed louder than any double blind study result ever could.

For Susan B. Anthony’s sake, one guy almost puked!

Meanwhile, this disgusted gentleman offered a popular appeasement: fire me and my odious sweatshirt already.

“Just fire here!”

While a number of commenters likely would’ve loathed the sight of a feminist slogan on any YouTube channel, most seemed particularly peeved that it showed up on one dedicated to SCIENCE.


Perhaps so blinded by fury, none noted the irony of their sweatshirt rantings taking place on a video about the psychological impact of clothes.

Before more deeply exploring this site-specific hostility toward a radical feminist slogan from the 1970s, here’s a fact worth noting: When you’re a woman hosting online video, the forecast often calls for #shirtstorms of varying intensity. Whether literally wearing your feminism on your sleeve or not, YouTube’s male-skewing lay science audience tends to evaluate female hosts by physicality and gender presentation first. Credence to the content comes second — if at all, sometimes. The Brain Scoop’s Emilie Graslie flawlessly sums up this and its potential chilling effect in her viral video “Where My Ladies At?

“The more I thought about it though, along with the question of is there any part of my job that I don’t look forward to, I would have to say it would be the frustratingly negative and even sexist comments that I have to sift through in my inbox on a daily basis…We have a fear of the feedback from our subscribers and commenters because we’re afraid that our audience is more focused on our appearance than the quality of our content.”

Do yourself a favor and watch the whole thing:

The objectification and sexism Graslie cites echoes a 2014 study published in PLoS One comparing TED Talk viewer comments on the TED website and YouTube. Between the platforms, YouTube commenters engaged less with the content and more with presenters’ appearances. On judgier YouTube, male speakers still tended to garner neutral comments, whereas female speakers’ looks and delivery styles were more readily critiqued.

While channel communities such as The Brain Scoop’s and mine at Stuff Mom Never Told You take pains to self-moderate constructive comment sections, women creators and educators simply aren’t treated equally within YouTube education verticals. Furthermore, any mention of gender inequality, representation or discrimination in STEM-related content, whether empirically validated or not, reveals a deeper layers of anti-feminism and righteous outrage that’s become familiar to the point of feeling rehearsed.

“…no better than those Christians…”

In aggregate, this sentiment I’ve repeatedly noticed betrays a fearful sense of invasion. Through this panicked lens, science preserves logic, whereas sexism invokes emotion, and never the twain shall meet. Therefore by extension, science communication ought to be comfortably sheltered from conversations about human accountability, inclusion and representation.

Case in point: an earlier Category 5 #shirtstorm that makes my mine look like a spring shower.

On November 12, 2014, the Philae lander touched down on a comet, making space history 317 million miles away. Meanwhile, across the social media universe, Rosetta mission chief Matt Taylor and his babelicious button unwittingly launched The Original #Shirtstorm.

To many in the field, including theoretical astrophysicist Katie Mack, science writer and producer Rose Eveleth, Atlantic science writer Ed Yong, climate change communicator Alice Bell and others, Taylor’s softcore ensemble symbolized the persistent sexism increasingly reported within STEM fields. Or, as astronomer Katie Grasha tweeted:

Meanwhile, biological anthropologist Kate Clancy fittingly hewed academic:

To be clear: Matt Taylor wasn’t the eye of the #shirtstorm. In fact, the tattooed scientist who was birthday-gifted the shirt made by a ladyfriend appears decidedly unhostile toward his female colleagues. Soon after and dressed in a nondescript hoodie, Taylor issued a tearful apology for likely the worst outfit decision of his life.

Rather, the polyblend optics of the moment crystallized top-down sexism within STEM that’s persisted for centuries. From the earliest days of scientific academies that represent the pinnacle of scholarly achievement and public influence, women weren’t welcome both by policy and de facto disinterest. Consider The Royal Society, which was established in 1662 and remains one of the world’s most prestigious fellowships. Not until 1904 did physicist and mathematician Hertha Ayrton become the first woman nominated for admission. The potential milestone quickly crumbled on account of Ayrton being someone’s wife. It would take another 40 years for The Royal Society to initiate its first female members — X-ray crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and biochemist Marjory Stevenson — in 1945.

To its credit, the Society has since changed its tune as one of the few such bodies with a diversity promotion policy. Still, a global gender breakdown of scientific academies published in Nature in February 2016 doesn’t herald much progress. Just 12 percent of worldwide members are women. As study author Dorothy Ngila underscored, this bodes poorly since these bodies “act as sources of both role models and science-policy advice.”

Even breaking into and staying in STEM academia remains a tricky algorithm of adding up stereotype threats, subtracting unconscious biases, dividing by motherhood and other exhausting calculations. A year before Taylor’s tacky shirt debuted in 2013, for instance, The New York Times Magazine asked “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?”. Among the many gender discriminatory data points, it cited a 2012 Yale study that found physicists, chemists and biologists rated identical applications for a hypothetical lab manager position more favorably and with a $4,000 higher starting salary when the fake applicant’s name was John instead of Jennifer.

Nor does the gender trouble (#JudithButlerpuns) stop with employment and salary discrimination. In a 2014 study on sexual harassment in scientific fieldwork published in PLoS One, two-thirds of the 666 participants across 32 scientific disciplines said they’d experienced some form of sexual harassment in the field, ranging from sexist jokes to sexual assault.

Women aren’t necessarily safer in the classroom or lab, either. Noted astronomer Geoffrey Marcy resigned from the University of California, Berkeley, in October 2015, following sexual harassment complaints that began in 2011. In January 2016, Caltech suspended theoretical astrophysicist Christian Ott after two graduate students filed Title IX complaints of gender-based harassment against him. The following month, genetics professor Jason Lieb quit before the University of Chicago could fire him for repeated sexual misconduct.

Despite this ample anecdotal and empirically supported evidence of STEM sexism, a herd of rabid defenders organized online and stuck up for The Shirt. And by “stuck up for,” I mean everything from tweeting all caps profanities at and issuing death threats to those who suggested Matt Taylor should’ve known better. Astronomer and Slate columnist Philip Plait vividly described the backlash as “a frothing torrent of backlash misogyny…”another in a long line of demonstrations of Lewis’ law (‘Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.’)”

Now, just as Matt Taylor’s boob shirt warranted context, so does my “feminazi” sweatshirt and its statement, which taken literally is actually a good thing for the future of science.

For starters, the haters are right: that sweatshirt is 100 percent my solidarity fist of feminist pride, though not suggestive of my nonexistent dream of all-womyn world domination as many video commenters seemed to assume. It was inspired by this snapshot of Alix Dobkin originally taken by her then-girlfriend Liza Cowan in 1975. In 2015, it resurfaced on the fantastic Instagram account h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, which features “herstoric lesbian imagery.”

Dobkin’s radical feminist top resonated with Otherwild owner and designer Rachel Berks who has since turned the shirt into a millennial feminist fashion statement. After being spotted on Annie Clarke (aka St. Vincent), Cara Delevingne, Kelly Rowland and others, The New York Times gave it the trend piece treatment in November 2015.

“The shirt is about a reaction to a misogynist and patriarchal culture that affects a lot of people,” Berks told NYT. “People are recontextualizing it: trans women, men, moms who have sons.”

As my YouTube experience also demonstrates, the shirt is both my “reaction to” and the audience’s lighting rod for said misogyny. My #shirtstorm also makes sense since research suggests many fellas who consume lay science media not only chafe against feminism, but also don’t believe sexism exists, particularly within STEM. In 2015, a team of psychologists analyzed 831 comments posted on a trio of articles reporting on studies confirming various STEM-related gender biases. Men posted 68 percent of the comments denying sexism exists, between 79 and 88 percent of comments justifying gender biases and 95 percent of sexist remarks directed at women.

Yet I argue feminism — as in a belief in the political, social and economic equality of the sexes — is imperative to scientific progress. Intersectionality can only enrich and enlarge its potential, not weight it down with so-called “political correctness.” Just look at biomedical research, which is catching up from a longstanding precedent of clinical trials consisting solely of male participants, while not accounting for sex differences in pathology and treatment response. Labs are even beginning to gender diversify their mice and rats, as science’s favorite human analogs have typically been all male for fear of female hormones skewing results. These minor tweaks result in major improvements for patient populations.

Stanford historian Londa Schiebinger who’s extensively studied the relationship between gender inclusion and scientific innovation would likely agree. “Once you start looking, you find that taking gender into account can improve almost anything with a human endpoint — stem cell research, assistive technologies for the elderly, automobile design, transportation systems, osteoporosis research in men, and natural language processing" Schiebinger told the University.

Alix Dobkin probably wasn’t thinking about biologically female pain receptors or heart disease when she posed in that iconic t-shirt 40 years ago. But symbolically, my sweatshirt was pretty damn appropriate to wear in that BrainStuff video because the future of STEM recruitment and research, as well as science communication, is necessarily broadening the paradigm beyond the interests, skills and projections of cisgender, straight, white (#Westernscienc) men. By dismantling societal roadblocks erected account of gender identity, ethnicity, ability, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation, innovation has infinitely more room to flourish.

Not long ago, a WIRED article declared 2015 “the year we really started caring about sexism in science.” In it, science journalist and director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program, Deborah Blum, noted how these public intersections of sexism in science are practically brand new. “I don’t think we saw these kinds of news stories and saw this kind of reaction in the journalism community in earlier generations,” Blum told WIRED. “We’re all catching up in this kind of cultural awareness.”

WIRED reporter Sarah Zhang owned up to the magazine’s editorial oversights as well:

“Here might be a good point to pause and reflect on WIRED’s coverage of sexism in science, which is, well, sporadic. We’ve been silent on many these stories because we’ve long hoped to cover the ways science can make the world better, not reflect the world’s problems. But that’s wrong, of course. Ignoring social inequality doesn’t fix it. We cover science and the culture of science, and that has to include the ways that culture goes wrong. Point is, we’re trying to figure it out, too.”

That “cultural awareness,” as Blum put it, also extends beyond patching up gender-related leaks in the STEM pipeline. At a 2009 Center for Inquiry panel, an audience member asked whether gender differences account for fewer women in science. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s answer would make a fitting preface to science textbooks on secondary school desks across the land:

I’ve never been female. But I have been black my whole life. And so, let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access, to equal opportunity that we find in the black community and the community of women in a male dominated — white male dominated — society…[And] the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was hands down the path of most resistance through the forces of society. Anytime I expressed this interest teachers would say “Don’t you want to be an athlete?” I wanted to become something that was outside the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. And so fortunately my depth of interest in the universe was so deep and so fuel-enriched that every one of these curveballs thrown at me and fences built in front of me and hills that I had to climb, I just reached for more fuel and I kept going. Now here I am, one, I think, one of the most visible scientists in the land, and I want to look behind me say, well, where are the others who might have been this and they’re not there? And I wonder. What is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not? Simply because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn. At every turn. …So my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences, when you don’t find women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real, and I had to survive them to get where I am today. So before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.

Until then, there’s no time for calm before the next #shirtstorm. Because uprooting STEM sexism relies not only on top-down changes, but also paying attention to the conversations and comment sections from the bottom up. The future of females — and everyone else — depends on it.

Cristen Conger

Written by

podcaster / video host / nasty woman

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