Shirtstorm

Rosetta Project scientist Matt Taylor caused a firestorm with his choice of fashion during the European Space Agency’s live stream of Wednesday’s Philae landing. Taylor initially sported a shirt featuring women in lingerie—CNN

This firestorm has attracted considerable derision from the right, many expressing doubts that something so minor could really keep women out of science.

The claim might in this instance be a bit of a stretch, but even if so it is the wrong argument to get into. Ordinary behaviour within an all-male or predominantly-male group undoubtedly can produce an environment that many women would wish to avoid. Rather than attempting to deny it, the better approach is to accept it without quibble and explore where it leads.

The vital question is the trade-off. There are two previous posts in this blog which set the context for the debate. The obvious one is the first  Progressivism, Reaction and Symmetry, where I explore the “hostile environment” concept and identify it as a weak point in the progressive claim to stand above mere disagreements between groups.

The later one, equally important, is the following post Patriarchy. It makes the point that in our current economic conditions, men do not actually need to work at all. To devote a large part of one’s life to a career is a choice, and one which is becoming less attractive to men year by year. The traditional social–economic incentive, of providing one with the means to create a family, is largely undermined, as discussed in that essay, but for the skilled craftsman, there has always been a second incentive, to achieve the remarkable, and to share the joy of creation and achievement.

Of course, if ordinary “laddish” behaviour produces a hostile environment for women—and it does—then the need to preserve a welcoming environment for women, or for that matter for anyone else produces an equally hostile environment for that kind of man. They don’t have to go into it, and the unpleasantness of dealing with that kind of oversight is quite likely to put them off.

The reason this has become such a hot issue in science and technology is precisely because the tradeoff there is the most vivid. There are women who are attracted to and capable of contributing at a high level to scientific and technological endeavour, who might be put off by a hostile predominantly-male environment. But there are surely many, many more men who are capable of contributing at the same level who would be put off by a bureaucratic compliance-driven environment. So the question is not one of efficiency, or of providing access to the largest, but a very narrow ideological question of destroying the traditionally male space.

Nobody must be allowed to forget that the whole “hostile environment” strategy is a complete reversal of the original proto-feminist drive to allow women into traditionally male fields. Back then, it was the conservatives who said that men and women were different, responded differently to the conditions, and that it was pointless to expect women to function in the environment of men’s work. It was the progressives who said that a woman could do whatever a man could do, and that there was no reason not to allow women to do men’s work since the result would be just the same as if a man did it.

Today, the conservatives are willing to accept women into any space on the same terms as men, and progressives saying that is not good enough; that men must change the way they do their work so as to make it more inclusive. Female participation has gone from being something that there is no reason to restrict, to being something that is positively desirable in itself, even though it comes at an obvious and significant cost.

At the same time work has gone from being an expression of a person’s self and spirit, in the first case, to being an entitlement or exercise of right today. If a man’s work must be performed according to arbitrary “social justice” principles, that divorces it from being an expression of his individuality. This goes alongside the reversal in the principle of women working: the pioneers wanted to express their spirit in the same way as the men did, to be “one of the lads” (I keep thinking of Doris from Hot Fuzz, who is maybe not the most appropriate exemplar), while modern feminists are assuming total alienation in the Marxist sense, and merely looking at different careers as scores or targets to be achieved.

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