So this happened – at The World Conference of Science Journalism, at a lunch sponsored by Korean female scientists and engineers – just yesterday.
So as a human being, I am not sure I particularly care what Professor Tim Hunt, FRS thinks about women. I am however grateful I never worked for the man as it might have been pretty weird to be a female in his lab, because apparently you would have to run around with a big stick trying to avoid Prof Hunt’s affections. Not to mention the crying, it’s difficult to pipette when crying. It might be hard working for a man who seems to have the emotional outlook of an adolescent, where you would be in danger of falling in love at every stage of your research – not knowing where to turn. The Royal Society have distanced themselves from Hunt’s comments at this stage saying ‘Science needs women’ – I think Hunt would agree with that, you have to have women around to fall in love with and of course it is ok if they dabble – they can have their own labs – no boys allowed. Apparently, in the world of Tim Hunt segregation is some kind of reasonable modern answer.
As a professional scientist, I am annoyed. I am not particularly annoyed that Prof. Hunt thinks that – I don’t care what he thinks – I am annoyed that a well known, acclaimed scientist thinks it is somehow rational to stand up in public and say ridiculous things like that. Unless he is just completely unaware of his surroundings, which is doubtful, then clearly he wants everyone to know exactly what he thinks – after all he is at a conference with a whole heap of journalists. He wants the world to know that girls are a pain in the lab (for whatever reason he came up with) and that we should be segregated from the boys. Shall we step back into the 1950s? Do we women need to leave our Co-ed labs because we are married – after all we will merely tempt otherwise productive male scientists into falling in love with us – unless of course we are ‘ugly’ I guess, then it is OK.
Now clearly, no established scientific body, unless they are really as crazy as Hunt and fancy death by media, is going to publicly agree with these sentiments. What is terribly worrying about this is that it sends the message to women or any other minority in science that ‘You are NOT welcome’. It is not some cranky failed academic saying this, it is a Nobel Prize winner and Fellow of the Royal Society saying this. When someone this prominent in the scientific community says this – others are left thinking – ‘well who else thinks that? and ‘am I really not welcome’?
It is equally not fair to blame the Royal Society for Hunt’s comments – he made them, they didn’t – but it will be interesting to see what happens next. If I were the Royal Society I would be livid: statements like this set their diversity program back, making them have to work much, much harder in the future to give the message that they are not like that. A simple statement doesn’t do it, no matter how well meant. These messages don’t go away so easily, they have been around for a long time. ‘you are not allowed’, ‘you are a sexual object’, ‘you are a temptress’, ‘you shouldn’t be here’, ‘you must be kept apart’ – how often have women heard that?
If I am going to cry for anything, it will be for the fact that one flippant statement made by a fool might make 51% of the population feel unwelcome in a profession which should be open to all.