Last week saw the successful landing of the Philae space probe on the surface of Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This is a huge achievement for the European Space Agency and for the many scientists and engineers who worked on this project.
At the press conference announcing the landing, the lead scientist chose to wear a shirt with inappropriate depictions of women and used an expression in his description of the comet, that were offensive to some of those who watched what was otherwise an unqualified triumph for space science and astronomy. The Royal Astronomical Society welcomes his subsequent unreserved and sincere apology.
Much of the discussion that followed the press conference took place on social media, for example on Twitter as #shirtstorm and #shirtgate. Unfortunately many of those who commented have been the subject of physical threats. The Society unequivocally condemns the perpetrators of this abuse, which overwhelmingly targeted women.
In all areas of our work, the Society takes issues of discrimination and diversity very seriously. We have recently increased our activity in this area, with the appointment of a staff member to cover these concerns and a designated member of Council who holds the role of Diversity Champion. The RAS also signed the Science Council Declaration on Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at its launch on Monday 6th October (see http://www.sciencecouncil.org/content/science-council-launches-declaration-diversity).
We therefore recognise that behaviour choices, from clothing to language, can discourage women from pursuing careers in science in general. These are equally important considerations in both the workplace and at public events such as press conferences.
The Society notes that the Rosetta team has a number of prominent women scientists and engineers who are excellent role models. They provide a positive message that gender is not a barrier to achievement in astronomy and space science at the highest level. Particularly in its future events, we strongly encourage ESA to make use of these women in its efforts to encourage people of all backgrounds to engage with the extraordinary science it delivers.