This was the year, amongst other things, of the #distractinglysexy hashtag, as discussed recently on BBC Radio4 here. This hashtag was itself part of the fallout of #Huntgate, the undeserved fall from grace of a Nobel prize winner on the back of an ill-judged joke in Seoul around which a whole mythology seems to have grown up.
As someone who knew Tim Hunt reasonably well through committee work (but hardly on terms of close friendship, both facts I have always disclosed) and so knew perfectly well the nature of his sense of humour as well as his active support of women, right from when his remarks were first brought to my attention I was convinced this was a joke that had gone horribly wrong. My reaction was that the stories that were abounding were unlikely to be an accurate representation of what had actually happened. Yet as a supporter of the cause of women in science it is clear that I was ‘expected’ to want to shoot the man. That, on the contrary – and like many women who knew and admired Tim – I wanted to express my support meant I became the target of those who thought I had ‘let down the sisterhood’ and that my views would apparently ever more be suspect. Indeed I became the target of some vitriol that certainly caused me to lose sleep (mild by comparison with many; there has been some truly horrendous abuse tossed around, none of which I condone).
What I did not foresee was the way the story would run, and run, and run: 6+ months on it is still rumbling on. It has long since ceased to be about Tim himself. People continue to try to get at the ‘truth’ and indeed new facts are still emerging, although also new red herrings. As lawyers know only too well, asking witnesses six months on what happened and how they felt is not likely to provide particularly reliable information. Yet there are those who attempt to base their case on such witness statements (which collectively seem to be about as contradictory as one might expect, sometimes internally self-contradictory too)*.
Tim’s apparent silence in the face of questions at a Sexism in Science session in Seoul, which fuelled much of the anger in some quarters, has been shown to be down to a case of misidentification. Tim has demonstrably been shown to be elsewhere – actually lending support at the talks of two women scientists. The person being questioned didn’t answer because they had nothing to do with the case. Even some of those most visible on the ‘anti’ side of the fence have accepted this misidentification. Yet that doesn’t seem to have caused the anger to abate as one would have hoped given this fresh concrete evidence and not all those who initiated that particular part of the story seem to have had the grace publicly to correct or retract what they said and wrote. Other people were made angry due to the initial misattribution of a quote about thanking ‘the ladies who had made lunch’, a remark actually made by a Korean female politician. Again, the clarification of who made this inane remark does not seem to have caused everyone to reconsider whether their anger at Tim was justified.
That in July I used Louise Mensch’s reports to support the ‘pro-Tim case’ seems also to have caused people to become angry specifically with me. I was surprised by the remarks I received privately and publicly from people I respect, taking this line. As far as I’m concerned when hard evidence is produced I regard it as evidence regardless of its source. It does not make me one of her ‘minions’, as some of her allies have been described, it does not mean I have ‘collaborated’ with her as others charged. Nor does it mean I have always approved of the tone of her writing and tweets; I haven’t. It does mean that where I knew facts that were not already in the public domain (from the ERC’s perspective in particular with regard to an earlier post of hers) I could see her investigations bore fruit.
Her latest analysis of when the outrage began building into the visible Twitterstorm that led to the media hounding of Tim does provide new, hard evidence demonstrating that the Twitter fury essentially occurred only after the misidentification of Tim at the Sexism in Science affair and not in the immediate aftermath of his ill-fated toast. I think that fact suggests that the outrage was not simply sparked by what he said, as has usually been implied. (Indeed it seems that the journalists who have described their horror at his initial words did not themselves attempt to talk to him in the hours after his toast – privately to call him out – despite there being opportunities to do so.) My own attempt at an interpretation is that the understandable undercurrent of ill-feeling around the wider issues of sexism exploded into an ad hominem attack on Tim as an obvious high profile target (with subsequently many others caught up in it) in the face of ‘his’ apparent refusal to answer questions at the Sexism in Science session in Korea.
There is of course a huge problem about sexism in science, of which many women will have personal and painful experience. Everyday sexism abounds, in the lab as elsewhere; most certainly it gets hurled around on Twitter. But this big problem in day to day science is what we should be exerting our collective energies towards addressing and it does not seem to be.
Surely it is time for people to accept that mistakes were made by many on a variety of fronts in this sorry story. Tim may have been idiotic in making his self-confessed ironic comments (as he himself would admit) but others have got hold of misinformation and refused to let it go or accept its inaccuracy. Many folk have sought to build a case to hang the man, acting as judge and jury, based on very little hard evidence.
People seem determined to point fingers and to go on doing so – something I, for one, early on entreated we stopped doing. It is as if some people enjoy throwing mud more than moving the world forward. If everyone is so concerned about sexism in science, could we not just concentrate on that challenge and do something useful instead of expending energy attacking others who ultimately share the same goals? I said in July in the closing comment on my own post that I felt this sad saga resembled the story of the suffragettes versus the suffragists and nothing has made me change my mind.
There was a brief surge of enthusiasm for my call in June for #just1action4WIS (Just one action for Women in Science), but I do not see it has had any lasting impact. (Nor, as the recent BBC Radio4 broadcast spelled out, has #distractinglysexy succeeded in doing any better despite the huge number of tweets with that hashtag.) So let me remind you of my list of actions that all of us can and should bear in mind as we go about our daily lives.
- 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;
- 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.
Which of these can you personally, hand on heart, say you have acted upon during this six month period? Have you actually done anything actively to further some young woman’s career, or advised or mentored someone just a year or two behind you in the hierarchy? Have you pushed at your institution’s systems to see if they contain hidden bias? Or have you merely thought outrage over one man’s foolish remarks covers your contribution to women in science issues for the year and you can rest on such laurels? Please, as I have said privately but bluntly to key players on both sides of this wretched affair, please can we move on without flinging more insults, find some closure, accept that just about no one is without fault or comes out of the affair with particular credit. But can we instead concentrate on the important issue of making sure that genuine sexism is eradicated, in science as elsewhere in our society. That means identifying those who actively hold women back or promulgate structures which contain bias, not those whose taste in jokes is not the same as yours.
Whether you agree with my take on #Huntgate is irrelevant; we need to be working together to move the world on. Let us all start 2016 with a clean slate as regards vitriol and finger-pointing, but with a detailed checklist on the other side of that slate as to what each and every one of us can and will do to make sure those girls and women setting out now have a better time of it than those already on the scientific ladder.
*Added March 18th 2016
Reluctant that I am to do anything to reopen this topic, I have been asked by Dan Waddell to correct the impression he believes I give in what I’ve written in this post that he published witness reports after 6 months (although that isn’t quite how I expressed myself). I am happy to correct at a factual level: the report he published that I cited appeared 22 weeks after the toast by Tim Hunt. He wishes me to say that the witness reports were collected ‘over a period of nearly five months, but mainly between late June and early October‘.
I hope he will likewise correct some inaccuracies in his own report, such as that the ERC Korean National Contact Point – NCP – is a ‘representative’ of the ERC. As the ERC website makes explicitly clear, and as has been spelled out to Mr Waddell also explicitly, ‘NCP’s do not represent the ERC’. It is interesting to note that Mr Waddell is continuing to try to keep this story alive behind the scenes in various ways despite what he writes in his comment of December 18th 2015 (comment below) including that ‘I welcome any cessation of these hostilities’ and ‘I will still cleave to the idea this should never have run for so long’. He is continuing to cause distress to some by his ongoing actions.
It is only because Mr Waddell has been putting email pressure on me, containing what it is hard not to assume is meant to be a veiled threat (‘I don’t want to have to take the matter further.’ to quote his most recent email) that I am prepared to touch this blog again when I feel we all should long since have moved on. Our energies should be put in to improving the situation for women in science in general not rehashing old news, as I have repeatedly said. I agree wholeheartedly with what he wrote previously that this story should never have run so long and I sincerely hope he will now return to what he himself called the ‘real world’ and leave this sorry tale and everyone involved in it alone.