STEM: Women are all over it (Elly Zupko)

Want to support women in science? Put them all over your torso. A recently-launched Kickstarter aims to make T-shirts covered in the faces of the greatest women in science history. The idea is to remind the public who these women are, and to give young women the sense that being a female science star is cool -- plus, proceeds will go to support women in STEM.

But the inspiration for the campaign came from a very different kind of shirt.

Maybe you were offended by that shirt covered in scantily-clad women that was worn in mission control during the Rosetta comet landing livestream. Maybe you were offended by the people who were offended by it. Maybe you have no idea what the big deal is, either way.

But whatever you think of the whole #shirtgate debacle, the fact remains: Women are under-represented in science, technology, engineering and math. And anything we can do to make these fields more welcoming to women is a great thing. So one woman is working on swapping out a bad shirt for a good one.

Elly Zupko, a Baltimore-area artist and writer, wasn't amused when she saw Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor's choice of apparel -- but she wasn't too concerned at first.

"My first reaction wasn’t that it was insidious or malicious, but that some guy had done something kind of dumb," Zupko said. "Honestly, I felt bad for the people he works with who had to deal with it. It was the kind of 'little thing' that wears on you over time when you’re a woman in a professional environment. But I know it’s worse for women in STEM fields, which have historically been — and currently are — dominated by men."

But when she realized that Taylor was a prominent scientist with a very public platform -- an internationally streamed news briefing -- it struck her that the shirt was more than just a dumb mistake.

"It was a message being broadcast to impressionable people, including students — and that message was negative. I also realized that the mistake wasn’t just Dr. Taylor’s. No one on his team, nor anyone at ESA, stopped him from publicly displaying sexualized imagery that was incredibly unprofessional, distracting  and inappropriate for his environment and audience," she said.

So Zupko tweeted a revision:

But what started as a joke is now about to be a reality: People asked Zupko if she planned on making the shirt and selling it, but with a book in the pipeline and a wedding to plan, she demurred. Until someone suggested that the proceeds could go to a charity that helped women get into science.

"The idea went from 'what if' to 'let’s do this!' in one tweet," Zupko said.

Zupko's campaign isn't the only one inspired by #shirtgate. Another raised omore than $20,000 to buy scientist Matt Taylor a watch in support of his hard work on the Rosetta landing -- but at Taylor's request, the money will be donated to an organization that aims to get children interested in science.

While some have accused Zupko of profiteering or being uptight, she said, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

The initial Kickstarter is a modest one -- backers can simply pre-order shirts, and the project only needs to hit a $5,000 goal for the first line of products (a Hawaiian shirt and a T-shirt) to get made and shipped. The only other reward available is at the $500 level, where you can nominate your own favorite notable woman in STEM. But the list is already extensive, including several women who were neglected while their male collaborators received Nobel prizes.

There may be other products once the initial goal is reached -- leggings and scrub tops are next on Zupko's list. And anything that doesn't go towards production will go to the National Girls Collaborative Project, which aims to get young women into STEM fields. Zupko emphasized that she's running the project as a volunteer. She's already in talks with retail outlets to pick up larger runs of the shirts, and plans to work with them to ensure that the sales continue to benefit women in STEM.

The project may have started as a cheeky rebuttal, but now Zupko has a greater cause in mind. "The purpose of making the shirt real is threefold: awareness, inspiration and change," she said.