T-Shirts VS. Sexism: An Interview with #ThatOtherShirt Founder Elly Zupko by Michael B. Tager
Back in 2014, I was dimly aware of a trending hashtag: #ThatOthershirt. It appeared in my Facebook feed and all through Twitter, surfaced in Yahoo publications and through word of mouth from friends and family. Thousands of people were involved in the trend, and the vast majority were vehemently supportive. I had no real idea what it was about, only that it dealt with science and sexism. When I looked a little closer, I was blown away.
Elly Zupko, with the support and assistance of her then-fiance (now husband) Gabriel Kabik, created a shirt to feature women in science. She created it as a response to casual chauvinism and blatant disrespect of women’s achievements in science, a field that’s supposed to be dedicated to rational, objective thinking. #ThatOthershirt was created to promote the contributions of women to science, of which there are many, most of which are unheralded. And it was created in part to inspire young girls to be interested in science, a field that they are often steered away from.
That’s a cause I can get behind. And it’s a cause that thousands did get behind.
What struck me about #Thatothershirt was not only that thousands of people became involved in funding and support of this shirt, but that the creators were local, homegrown grassroot talent.. The task they self-assigned–designing and creating the shirt, and then establishing and running a nonprofit–seemed overwhelming. It’s a task that few set to themselves, one that I can only imagine doing. I needed to know more about it.
MBT: That Other Shirt is a fascinating example of artistic DIY in the service of non-profit. Do you have background in those arenas?
ELLY: My day job is in writing, with some graphic design. But being an artist and designer is my moonlight passion. My recent work has included comics and political cartooning, as well as some three-dimensional design work. I’m working fairly actively on a full-length graphic novel, as well. I do graphic design work to support my non-profit, and I did all the interior and exterior design work for my independently published novel, The War Master’s Daughter.
I’m completely self-taught in the non-profit world. I had to learn everything as I went when I created my non-profit, SMLX Good. I created that organization in the wake of my Kickstarter for the STEM: Women Are All Over It project, which exceeded its goal by 650% and brought in over $33,000.
GABE: My mother was a math teacher in Harford County Schools for 30 years, and my father was a very successful artist and craftsman who also ran his own businesses. So I was instilled at an early age with a dedication to the importance of education, the arts, public service, and non-profits, as well as math and science. As a result, I’ve always felt like healthy appreciation and support of all of those things is important to a good life and a functional and good society. Now I do work that blends those two worlds, as an instructional designer.
MBT: What IS That Other Shirt? How did it come about?
ELLY: In November of 2014, the European Space Agency (ESA) landed a craft on a comet for the first time. It was a huge moment in space exploration. The event, however, was accompanied by some controversy when the mission’s Project Scientist, Dr. Matt Taylor, appeared on international television wearing a shirt that was covered in images of scantily clad women. This caused a backlash, the shirt emblematic of the sexism that has historically been rampant in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. One of the hashtags that began accompanying the criticism on Twitter was #ThatShirt.
GABE: It was a pretty bad look for such an enormously important achievement. I know Matt didn’t intend to offend anybody, but nevertheless it was a bad look. I don’t mind sexy art, I like pulpy sci-fi stuff, I love camp, but in the context of this enormous achievement for all of science across the globe, to see Matt’s shirt was pretty disappointing. I know Matt has since apologized and I honestly feel bad for him after the fact, because I don’t think he realized what he was doing at the time, and had he known, he probably would’ve made a different choice. It seems like from the way he responded to the incident he realizes how bad it made the ESA look.
ELLY: I quickly Googled “famous women scientists” (to be honest, I didn’t really know that many!) then did a purposely low-quality Photoshop job, where I pasted [their] portraits onto the image of Dr. Taylor wearing “that shirt.”
GABE: We were working from home that day, and she just goes… “So I think I’m going viral right now?” I haven’t had my coffee yet so I’m not ready for this information. She shows me this tweet she’d made that had hundreds of retweets and was getting a TON of attention on Twitter.
ELLY: Soon I had many people responding, “I would buy that shirt” and “How can we make this shirt happen?” People really wanted to wear a shirt covered in notable women from STEM fields. I talked it over with my husband, Gabriel Kabik, and he encouraged me to try to make the shirt happen. I started engaging with scientists and science fans on Twitter to gauge interest and gather information.
GABE: We looked at the metrics and saw it had reached about 750,000 people in a matter of hours. We both talked about how on the Internet people will SAY things about what they want, but in reality you can never be sure if they’re just having fun or being serious. But one of the things I saw in the replies was something I hadn’t anticipated: a lot of the people asking for the shirt were scientists. Men and women, all over the country and in Europe. These weren’t your usual social activists or just random people on Twitter coming along for the ride and having fun with the moment, these were people saying, “I want this shirt, I will wear it to conventions, I will wear it to work. I will give it to my undergrads.”
I noticed this idea was striking a chord with a group not known for being openly political (although we’re seeing that myth start to evaporate as 2017 goes on), and that told me the need was absolutely real and that it could have a great impact. So we decided to do a Kickstarter for it.
ELLY: I began using the hashtag #ThatOtherShirt. I realized the interest truly was there, and decided that I could run a Kickstarter to bring “that other shirt” into reality.
MBT: What was the process of creating it? From thought to finished product?
ELLY: Since the seed of the idea was sown on Twitter, I used Twitter as my main platform. I also created a blog where I could post longer updates and run polls to collect market research. I knew the idea was based on a fleeting news item that would leave people’s minds in a matter of days; keeping in touch with people on a frequent basis and creating an independent, self-sustaining identity for the project were essential to maintaining momentum.
From the beginning, I wanted to ensure we were both honoring the most notable women in STEM (people like Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and Ada Lovelace), while also introducing new faces and telling stories that hadn’t been so frequently heard. Since a lot of scientists and science fans were following the progress, it was easy to get names submitted. I created a public Google doc so people could see the list in real time. I started with what I called the “Long List,” which I would then narrow down to the “Short List” of women who would go into the final design.
The process of narrowing down was a little bit science and a little bit alchemy. I ranked women based on their field of work, the notability of their accomplishments, and aspects of their diversity. I wanted to be sure we included an incredibly diverse group, including women of color, women with disabilities, living and dead women, and women from the LGBT community. Due to the nature of the project’s origin, a disproportionate amount of the nominations were from the aerospace sector. I didn’t want it to dominate, so I was sure to include a variety of fields.
Fortunately, most of the photos I used for non-living women were available under the creative commons license. I also reached out again to the community; many of the project’s followers worked for universities or other scientific organizations and were able to find photos through their contacts. For living scientists, I made the choice to request formal permission to include them. It was really exciting to hear back from luminaries like Jane Goodall and Temple Grandin, who were very supportive.
[I left] several spots open for a few Kickstarter backers to select a person of their choosing. [I also] included the memorial plaque for the victims of the attack on the Ecole Polytechnique in 1989. It was important to memorialize these women because they were killed in an explicitly misogynistic attack by a man who felt women shouldn’t be in STEM. I made the decision to include a “blank” face. Since not everyone could be sure their favorite scientist would be included, this would be an area to place a button or patch, or to leave blank as a symbol of future notable women in STEM. This made the shirt “open” and served to connect history to the future.
The next step was to integrate the final images into the design. This process was kind of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the box lid, without knowing if you had all the pieces. Concurrent with the design work, I had to set up the Kickstarter. It was important to the spirit of the project that the shirt be an all-over print, and I wasn’t even sure that was a possibility. At the time, very few print shops offered that capability for t-shirts, known as sublimated dye printing.
GABE: Elly did all the research on vendors and reached out the shirt manufacturers to get quotes. Initially we were just going to do a t-shirt, because the Hawaiian style was very expensive to print as an all-over, but we realized that since the original shirt was a Hawaiian, we had to offer it. We also added a poster reward for people who couldn’t shell out the money for the shirts, which were much more expensive than we’d thought they would be.
[She also] worked with our friend Jes Goodyear, a professional videographer and filmmaker who helps run the Hartlove-Goodyear Video Production Studio here in Baltimore, to put together the video to go with the Kickstarter, and we started thinking we might be able to pull this off.
Elly: Once the Kickstarter ended with 650% funding and the shirt designs were complete, I ordered prototypes, made design tweaks, and made the final bulk orders of t-shirts, button-up shirts, posters, booklets, and mailing supplies. My living room was a disaster as I fulfilled over 600 individual Kickstarter rewards by myself. I should note that I had PLENTY of offers of help, but I was a bit of a control freak back then and wanted to ensure every single order was perfect.
I estimate that we’ve sold over 1,000 shirts, including the Kickstarter. I’ve shipped them all over the world, as far as Australia and South Korea.
MBT: Why do you think demand was so high?
GABE: One thing I’ve realized working as an ally within social justice is that systemically marginalized groups don’t get the luxury of getting to pick and choose their targets. It’s easy to say, “Well Matt didn’t mean to be sexist, so this criticism is unfair.” Intent matters little to those who are harmed.
It’s really hard for women to speak out against misogyny in their lives, in their fields of work, and in their workplaces, because very public gains in the movement toward equality seems to have given license [for] people to simply decide that inequality has been formally eradicated, and anyone claiming otherwise is making it all up. People seem to believe that if someone isn’t beating you up or calling you epithets, then there’s no way they’re harming you with prejudice. It’s like having mice in your walls, and you can hear them because you live there, but your landlord says, “Well I can’t hear them right now, and unless I see them myself, I’m not going to do anything about it.” That’s why it’s important for men to believe women when they tell us about their experiences. Because we don’t have a clue what it’s like to live as a woman.
So people who are being systematically marginalized and harmed by sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, fat phobia, etc. are forced to exploit the rarer examples of oppression, the ones that are the most public and easiest to explain to outsiders, because our society mostly ignores the more complex examples. So people who were sick of misogyny in STEM went after “That Shirt”, and rightly so. It deserved criticism in proportion to its impact.
ELLY: When I first tweeted, I had absolutely no idea that it would resonate the way it would. However, I did a lot of research into issues of sexism in STEM workplaces, the gender gap in STEM fields, and individual stories of sexism that the women I was featuring had actually faced. I saw that women who wanted careers in STEM were fighting on multiple fronts: they were fighting to be supported in their dreams from extremely young ages. Parents and teachers alike were and are steering girls away from STEM.
Ivy League universities didn’t start officially admitting women until the late 1960’s and beyond. Women were and are fighting to have the same opportunities as men in the workplace, such as “human computer” Christine Darden at NASA. They were and are fighting to actually be recognized for their accomplishments, and in many cases having their work unabashedly stolen by men, such as in the cases of Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. And all the while, they were facing a more concentrated version of the workplace sexism that occurs in most male-dominated American workplaces.
So within this context, the shirt serves a variety of purposes. First, it pays tribute to amazing women who were doing difficult work in difficult circumstances, many of whom might not otherwise be known by the general public. Second, it offers a new landscape of role models for girls. We need girls to get interested—and stay interested—in STEM fields in order to maintain the diverse talent pipeline necessary to be successful in these sectors.
GABE: I think That Other Shirt in particular is necessary because while women study STEM at similar rates to men, they are far, far less likely to be working in STEM 5 years after graduation, and when asked why, more often than not they say it’s because of a hostile work environment. STEM, for all its great achievements, has an ugly history of its treatment of women, as exemplified by many of the women on the shirt, like Rosalind Franklin or Jocelyn Bell Burnell, just a few of the women whose work earned a Nobel prize for their male colleagues, while they were left off intentionally. It’s also important because it shows off just how many women of color have been instrumental to STEM. We’re just starting to hear about this just now with the success of Hidden Figures, but I don’t think most white Americans, or indeed most Americans generally, had any idea just how much our history of STEM was made possible by women of color. And the shirt really highlights that, which is hugely important.
ELL: When I see kids wearing That Other Shirt, it makes my heart swell, because I know it’s sending a message they will carry with them. Third, it’s a conversation starter. I can give talks and write essays and spout statistics until I’m blue in the face. But I believe one-on-one conversations about real people’s stories are the most powerful tool we have for change, and this shirt absolutely starts conversations.
MBT: Conversation is key, but it can be kind of scary. Has there been backlash?
GABE: Absolutely. I’ll let Elly talk about what that was like, but let’s just say there were quite a few moments where I was ready to track some trolls down and give them a piece of my mind. But every attack was just more confirmation of how necessary the project was.
ELLY: Anyone talking positively about feminist issues on Twitter or other public online venues is going to face backlash. I did receive some not-nice email, including men who told me the shirt was ugly or that I was. It was the harmless and typical reaction of men who feel threatened by women, and I’m thankful I didn’t face worse.
But the major backlash was not against me personally; it was against the idea that we could criticize a mere shirt and be taken seriously. Hashtags like #ShirtStorm and #ShirtGate were used by anti feminists to shut down any arguments that a shirt could be sexist, or even that sexism was a major factor in the lack of female representation in STEM fields.
But, since we’re talking here about STEM and science, I always say that we should take a scientific approach. My friend Dr. Janet Stemwedel, a PhD chemist, professor, and science writer, addressed the “shirt storm” by saying, “women’s accounts of their own experiences are better data than your pre-existing hunches about their experiences.” In other words, ignoring relevant data from direct observation in favor of preconceived conclusions or hunches is bad scientific method. If women are saying that sexism is a significant factor in their decision to leave a job or field, then we need to listen to that, believe it, and work to address it.
MBT: I’m glad the trolls didn’t permanently impede your ongoing good work. Can you talk about the non-profit you’ve established through That Other Shirt?
ELLY: I saw an opportunity with #ThatOtherShirt, but it was an opportunity for advocacy and I never saw it as a quick path to easy money. I had promised my followers that I would personally not make a penny off this project—that it would be entirely non-profit. I say that with full awareness of my privilege. My husband and I both work full-time and have sufficient incomes for our needs. I did this project pro bono because I could and because I wanted to. But no designer should ever be expected to work for free, no matter how worthy the cause.
I wish I could say that I started SMLX Good out of a place of pure altruism, but it was mostly pragmatic. By starting the non-profit, I was able to ensure that money was not taxed and that all funds would be put toward the project. Additionally, because I exceeded my initial goal by so much, I was able to get better bulk discounts from my vendors, and drive the per-unit cost down. That left a good amount of money left over, which I had always wanted to direct to good causes. By using those leftover funds as seed money, I am able to sustain an ongoing enterprise, with the shirt being our foundational fundraising item.
ELLY: Our mission is to further education and activism across a spectrum of social causes, especially the promotion of inclusivity and access for all types of people. In addition to providing the shirt itself, a secondary goal of the project was to raise money to give directly to organizations who work to close the gender gap in STEM fields. Our original donor recipient was slated to be the National Girls Collaborative Project, and we did donate to them. We’ve provided free and at-cost shirts to the Lancaster Science Factory, which sells them in their gift shop and gets to keep the proceeds. We’ve sent free shirts to girls’ robotics clubs. We provide posters free of charge to all educators to hang in their classrooms or offices. We also provide funds directly to organizations and campaigns that have missions that align with ours.
We also act as fundraising support for other non-profit organizations. As we do with the Lancaster Science Factory, we provide items at-cost, which organizations can then sell at retail prices. I’m in talks with the National Park Service and a network of girls’ STEM organizations in the southwest to set up fundraising programs.
The shirt project was displayed at a vendor booth at the 229th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society. I was invited to be the opening speaker at the Women’s History Month Celebration at Aberdeen Proving Ground [and]. I’ll also be the 2017 Ada Lovelace Day keynote speaker at York University in Toronto, Canada.
MBT: What are the future goals of the nonprofit?
ELLY: I’m also supporting a K-8 teacher friend of mine in starting a girls’ empowerment club in Harford County Maryland that focuses strongly on STEM. SMLX Good will be donating funds to pay for their meeting space as well as STEM: Women Are All Over IT booklets, and I’ll be going to talk to the girls about women in STEM.
GABE: We’re developing a new project, the Good Gear Box, in response to the things going on right now in society and in politics, designed to help people expand and enhance their activism and their participation in our democracy. It’s a subscription box, like Loot Crate or Smuggler’s Bounty, but instead of getting geeky stuff, we’re sending out gear (clothes, posters, bumper stickers, pins, and more) that advocates for social/racial/economic/environmental justice. The goal is not just to get advocacy out there, but to provide learning materials for a variety of causes in the boxes, so that people who care about one cause can find out more about a common cause. People talk a lot about the need for “intersectionality” in justice movements, and this is going to be something that tries to help create more of that.
MBT: Great idea with the Good Gear Box, especially with adding so many artistic pieces. How has the entry of nonprofit work affected artistic work?
ELLY: It could become a full-time second job if I let it. I’ve had to work hard to balance my full-time job, the non-profit, and my personal creative endeavors. My husband and I are also expecting our first child in August, so I know it’s only going to get harder. Besides eating into my time, though, my nonprofit work has caused me to approach my artistic work with a more socially aware and intersectional lens.
I made significant changes to my graphic novel to introduce more diversity and to address issues of ableism that I wasn’t previously aware of. I’ve also taken a much greater interest in political cartoons and using comics to convey progressive messages. I’ve also become closer to some of my artist friends who have found themselves in similar positions—wanting to use their art as action. I can’t wait to include their work—zines and comics and posters—in Good Gear boxes.
GABE: It takes a lot of time and effort to run a non-profit, and that makes personal projects take a back seat.
MBT: What are your future projects, both artistic and non-profit?
ELLY: Good Gear is absolutely our biggest project, and my husband and I are aware that it will be a big commitment. Time permitting between SMLX Good and our new baby, I want to continue working on my graphic novel. I’m writing, drawing, and lettering it all myself, and project a completed length around 150 pages, of which I’ve done about 20. So maybe I’ll get it done before my unborn kid graduates high school.
Author Michael B. Tager is a Baltimore-based writer and editor with a reasonable wariness of bears. You can read more of his work on his website.
Elly Zupko received her Bachelor’s degree in English writing with a minor in fine art from Goucher College. She works professionally as a proposal manager for a government contractor, while serving as President of her nonprofit organization, SMLX Good, in her spare time. She is a novelist and comic artist, and dabbles in sculpture and design.
Gabriel Kabik is a graduate of UMBC and works professionally as an instructional designer. He serves on the board of SMLX Good and is the main driver behind the organization’s Good Gear project. He loves comics, games, 3-D printing, and writing music.
Gabe and Elly are lifelong Maryland residents and are expecting their first child in August.