Last week the world erupted into a storm of outrage over remarks Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize winner, made in Korea. Unacceptable, indefensible remarks. He has been made to resign from positions and committees for which he has worked so hard. An extraordinary number of column inches (virtual and real) have been devoted to demonising the man. As someone who has expended much of my energy recently to working to improve the lot of women in science I was naturally appalled by his remarks, but I think it is worth asking what damage they have caused and whether the response actually helps the situation. Now a little time has passed, perhaps it is possible to have a more nuanced and reflective conversation than was had in the first days of outrage.
Scientists should be looking at the evidence, and I fear there has been too little of that done around this distressing episode. I have seen reports from attendees at that infamous Korean lunch which paint a rather different picture of how the remarks (which appear to have been in an impromptu welcome speech rather than something meticulously prepared) were received than the one doing the rounds. Laughter, for instance. But much more important is to analyse the bigger picture. So I would like to ask some rather different questions, to try to move the debate on.
1 Do these remarks prove Tim Hunt is sexist?
I believe we should judge the man not by the stupid, offensive remarks made in bad taste on the fly but the totality of his contributions, not just to science, but also to furthering the careers of the young. He has spent much of the last 15 years since his Nobel Prize win, travelling the world to speak to young audiences encouraging them, inspiring them. Not, please note, gender-segregated audiences! He has freely given of the Nobel mystique to all. Speaking personally – and I have sat on a variety of committees with Tim over the past 5-6 years and got to know him quite well – I have seen no evidence to suggest that at any previous point in his career has he done or said anything to indicate a sexist man at heart, certainly not in my hearing or in any actions taken at any committee I have been on with him. Other people have said the same (e.g. here) He is, as has been said, a man of his generation who undoubtedly was educated in different times and can say outrageous things on many topics, often with a twinkle in his eye. But my impression is firmly of a man who genuinely supports people, whatever their gender, background or specific interests.
It is worth remembering what happened a while back about Bora Zivkovic, in a rather different situation. In that case, once one woman spoke out others quickly followed. I have yet to see women stepping forward to say how Tim Hunt blighted their career by refusing to promote them, support them, actively behaving inappropriately or demeaning them. We should remember to look at the evidence and I for one have not seen any about such behaviour. However I have seen remarks implying that surely such people exist and that is the justification for stripping Tim of everything. That begins to smack of witch-hunting in the absence of evidence, particularly as I would imagine journalists have been digging around looking for it. Perhaps he really is just a man with foot-in-mouth syndrome but with enormous goodwill to support those setting out on their careers. Goodwill I suspect he will no longer be able to exercise in the way he has done through globe-trotting over the past decade.
2 Do these remarks prove the Royal Society is sexist?
There have been some wild extrapolations from this single set of offensive remarks to the idea that the Royal Society is endemically sexist. Even if you totally believe what happened proves Tim is sexist, it is not good science to extrapolate from one data point to a whole organisation. Calling for the Royal Society to do X or Y to eliminate Tim Hunt’s apparently pernicious influence, sounds more like baying hounds than evidence-based policy. However, he has resigned from the only committee he sat on, just in case people worry.
Worse, I have seen it suggested that because one FRS has made some awful remarks, women will be actively discouraged from applying for fellowships and research fellowships. This strikes me as inverted logic. If you believe what is wrong is that the Royal Society has insufficient women associated with it, then everyone should be doing all they can to change that. Early career women should be encouraged even more vigorously to apply for all the research fellowship schemes; senior women should be nominated with even more determination. The Royal Society cannot move towards the equality it itself seeks if women aren’t nominated. To change the situation there is an onus on others to act as well as the Society itself. (And, it should be noted, supporting women’s nominations to the Royal Society is exactly what Tim, to my certain knowledge, has been doing.)
3 Why do people attack in a way reminiscent of a lynch mob?
This question is at the heart of what disturbs me about this whole sorry affair. A speech on the other side of the world has let loose a torrent of invective. Those engaging in it may feel they are furthering the cause of women in science, something close to my heart as regular readers of this blog will be aware. But I feel they are in danger of doing the complete opposite, for instance by implying women shouldn’t bother to get involved with the Royal Society. Can each and every one of those who have engaged in this debate swear that they have themselves always spoken out about any and every issue of sexism they have encountered in their daily lives?
I believe the problems of sexism, the problems for women in society collectively and not just women in science, arise because people look the other way when they see bullying going on; when a woman is talked over at a committee; when a young student is picked on by a male colleague and laughed at if they try to pick up a soldering iron; when the male students in the group go off to the pub on a Friday evening making it clear the women are not welcome because they get in the way of lads’ talk; when women are not encouraged to aspire; when no one taps them on the shoulder to apply for jobs……The list goes on and on. Can everyone reading this honestly say they have never thought ‘I don’t want to get involved’ or ‘it’s not my responsibility’?
Curing the issues of women in science needs each and every one of us to be vigilant and to speak out about the everyday sexism that is all around us, not just wait to bay at a celebrity (which of course Nobel Prize winners are) who says something crass, suggesting he holds views that most of us think are Victorian. If watching this sorry affair unfold provoked people to act locally to eradicate all the microinequities that abound, then some good would have come out of it.
The ‘#distractinglysexy images, like the recent #girlswiththeirtoys photos that circulated on Twitter, are lighthearted ways of demonstrating just how much women are successfully embedded in scientific laboratories. But women will not rise to the top of the ranks if unconscious bias continues to rein. It would be wonderful if everyone who has posted some horrified comment about #huntgate or who has read some of the outpouring of media articles, committed to taking one action, just one, in their local organisation to counter the local brand of disadvantage that women may be facing. We should all be pro-active, not look the other way. Here’s an easy list to help people make that commitment. Everyone should be able to find one they are in a position to carry out.
- Call out bad behaviour whenever and wherever you see it – in committees or in the street. Don’t leave women to be victimised;
- Encourage women to dare, to take risks;
- Act as a sponsor or mentor (if you are just setting out there will still always be people younger than you, including school children, for whom you can act);
- Don’t let team members get away with demeaning behaviour, objectifying women or acting to exclude anyone;
- Seek out and remove microinequities wherever you spot them;
- Refuse to serve on single sex panels or at conferences without an appropriate level of female invited speakers;
- Consider the imagery in your department and ensure it represents a diverse group of individuals;
- Consider the daily working environment to see if anything inappropriate is lurking. If so, do something about it.
- Demand/require mandatory unconscious bias training, in particular for appointment and promotion panels;
- Call out teachers who tell girls they can’t/shouldn’t do maths, physics etc;
- Don’t let the bold (male or female) monopolise the conversation in the classroom or the apparatus in the laboratory, at the expense of the timid (female or male);
- Ask schools about their progression rates for girls into the traditionally male subjects at A level (or indeed, the traditionally female subjects for boys);
- Nominate women for prizes, fellowships etc;
- Tap women on the shoulder to encourage them to apply for opportunities they otherwise would be unaware of or feel they were not qualified for;
- Move the dialogue on from part-time working equates to ‘isn’t serious’ to part-time working means balancing different demands;
- Recognize the importance of family (and even love) for men and women;
- Be prepared to be a visible role model;
- Gather evidence, data and anecdote, to provide ammunition for management to change;
- Listen and act if a woman starts hinting there are problems, don’t be dismissive because it makes you uncomfortable;
- Think broadly when asked to make suggestions of names for any position or role.
If every reader signed up to #just1action4WIS (or came up with another one to add to that list and acted upon it) that would be much more appropriate than pouring all the vitriol onto one man but doing nothing about the bigger picture.
Please make that pledge to do your part. Let’s get something positive out of this debacle: remember #just1action4WIS.
For readers interested in my previous posts on related subjects, here’s a quick reprise to some particularly relevant ones: