By now, pretty much everybody has heard about this gaffe by a scientist of the European Space Agency: during a television program for the general public, he was wearing a shirt showing scantily clad ladies, and made a joke about the probe being “sexy, but not easy”.

I heard or read somewhere that one should be very careful when using jokes in the classroom, because a student who does not get a joke, or, worse, who feels targeted by the joke, can feel excluded from the class. More generally, one should be careful when joking in front of strangers — and a television audience is just that: strangers.

It is very different to joke in front of close colleagues or close friends, people who have known you for years and know your real background, feelings and orientations. I for instance have a colleague who jokes about the habits of French and Israelis; I think this is acceptable given that he has both these citizenships and his humor is often self-deprecating. I would not repeat his jokes in front of an audience of strangers.

The reason is that strangers do not know you, and the only thing they might remember from your talk or class is the joke. They may not understand whether you mean what you said or wore literally or ironically. If the joke was really funny and everybody liked it, that may be a plus, but if it was a gaffe this is definitely a minus. The problem with the ESA scientist is that he conveyed to the general public (who seldom see real working scientists) the message that space science is a frat boys' club.

Needless to say, few females want to work in a frat boy environment and thus the message conveyed by that scientist is counterproductive for attracting females to science.

I seldom hear off-color jokes during my own professional meetings. When I hear some, I find them quite unprofessional. Here are the ones that I can recall:

During a conference banquet (you know, the boring speeches were the organizers compliment themselves and the audience for the success of the conference), a male Chinese scientist compared implementation in computer algebra to sex within marriage; something like one is not complete and good without the other.

During a meeting about university libraries, a female scientist said “we are virgins (giggle) virgins for this new information that you've told us, of course”. (It seems to me that, in French, using the word “virgin” in this way is not a very natural way to say “we've never heard about this before”, so it seems not unlikely that the intent was to make a sex joke.)

During a conference on sociological and humanities issues, a female participant drew an insistent comparison between the intermingling of scientific disciplines and sexual penetration.

Note that Richard M. Stallman was strongly criticized for an off-color joke on virginity not unlike the one above, and I suspect that a male scientist would risk getting in trouble with the comparison to coitus (perhaps there is more tolerance for females). In all cases, I found that such jokes brought nothing to the discussion.

I would like to stress that I'm not a prude, or at least I don't think of myself as one. I however like to draw a line between what can be said within a familiar context, and what is appropriate in front of an audience. Certainly, risqué jokes should be avoided in the latter case.