Cry, cry, cry (for backwards Nobel Laureates)

So this happened – at The World Conference of Science Journalism, at a lunch sponsored by Korean female scientists and engineers – just yesterday.

Tim Hunt on women

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.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
This entry was posted in Tim Hunt, WCSJ, women in science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Cry, cry, cry (for backwards Nobel Laureates)

  1. I notice that there have been calls for Hunt to be stripped of his FRS. That seems most unlikely to happen: the criteria for FRS are excellence in science; there is no requirement that you be a decent human being.
    The Royal Society has distanced itself from his comments, which is a start, but I think they should do more. I would like to see them state publicly that they will bar him from serving on their committees. Someone with these views should not be involved in determining Royal Society policy or in making awards.

  2. Well said, Sylvia

    I’m on the Royal Society Diversity committee, and Tim Hunt has caused consternation. I hope a fuller renunciation will appear tomorrow. Also, I hope, from UCL where Hunt has an honorary appointment,

    I have to say that I have never heard any man say anything of that sort, even when drunk. Neither do I recall any single sex labs (beyond what might be expected from stochastic variability). So I really hope that there are no longer many people with views like that. I suppose it could be counted as a victory of sorts that, even if some such people remain, they mostly daren’t admit it.

  3. A. Nony Mouse says:

    1) Please provide some context. So far as I can tell you appear to be interpreting an inappropriate joke (by all means, take him to task about it; it wasn’t appropriate for such a context) with an expression of a genuinely held view. These two things are a million miles apart a demand a completely different response: While the latter would be inappropriate for someone holding a leadership role (given that it would indicate they would be leading in a bad fashion) the former just requires a bit of patience and explanation of why such things are best avoided. I’m willing to bet we’ve all (you included) made plenty of similarly “inappropriate” jokes in our time, the big difference being that you and I make them in the pub, to a select group of people, who clearly understand the context and are, probably, receptive to the joke, not at a major, international science journalism conference.

    2) Science can be expected to attract, shall we say, eccentric characters. Throughout history many of the best discoveries have been made by those who are controversial, or who don’t fit in. Indeed, it is by daring to break the conventions of what it is acceptable to say and do they have advanced science; of course we would accept some of this to spill over into other aspects of their life. To push them out would do horrible damage to science: say what you like, Tim Hunt is clearly an excellent scientist who has achieved great results (another example, I have seen compared to this, is James Watson), to push these people out would set back the progress of science – there’s no reason to believe another person would have made the same discoveries at the same time (and, as I allude above, if you push out the oddballs you’ll be disproportionately pushing out the excellent scientists). And, of course, pushing out the oddballs in the name of “diversity” is ironic, to say the least.

    3) Providing the meat of your argument as a screenshot of a badly formatted word document (replete with formatting characters and proofing marks) that lacks coherent punctuation does nothing to help your credibility.

    • A. Nony Mouse says:

      “of course we would accept some of this to spill over into other aspects of their life” is, of course, supposed to read:

      “of course we would expect some of this to spill over into other aspects of their life”

    • Not sure that context would help this but here are some other reports on Prof. Hunt ‘s comments

      as for your second point – I am not advocating drumming him out of the brownies. But I think the excuse (for lack of a better word) is ‘oh he is just eccentric’ isn’t really a good one. There are many good scientists who don’t say stupid things like this – and are themselves eccentric (whatever that means) – it’s a bit like saying ‘it’s ok because he is smart’ – that kind of thing isn’t ok, ever – I don’t care who says it

      It is the rule of isomorphic replacement – if he said for instance – ‘the trouble with green people in the lab is ….’ – is clearly a racist comment, it’s the same for ‘the trouble with all women is …..’ it’s not ok,

      • A. Nony Mouse says:

        Thanks for your reply.

        1a) There’s an old saying that a text without a context is a con (although it doesn’t actually work if you do the pseudo-algebra…). I think it is helpful to know that these were off the cuff remarks made at the conference dinner precisely because it tells us that this wasn’t a considered, prepared speech. We all say stupid things when we’ve had a few glasses of wine and are in an informal situation. The fact that he introduced the comments by saying he “has a reputation of being a chauvinist” seems to add to the suggestion that what followed wasn’t meant to be directly literal.

        1b) With the benefit of hindsight we can add some extra context that might help us understand what was going through his head. He’s married to a professor of immunology, for instance, so perhaps these remarks were supposed to be a brief autobiography, not a reference to women in general? His later explanations (” it’s very disruptive to the science because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.“I found that these emotional entanglements made life very difficult”)suggest that he as making an observation that personal relationships in the workplace can get complicated: I’ve certainly seen examples of this in my university. Indeed he blames himself for the consequences, not the women (“be honest about my own shortcomings”).

        1c) Finally context provides proportion. If the admissions tutor said this deadly seriously on the open day that would be far more serious than a septuagenarian who’s not quite kept up with the pace of change in society, and is unlikely to be practising science that much longer, saying it after a tipple at the conference dinner. It doesn’t excuse it, but is it really a “disaster for the advancement of women”? I can safely say that none of the women in my lab would let this stop them advancing.

        2) My point isn’t that that excuses his behaviour, but that science attracts people that don’t always fit in, more than some other careers. And, indeed, that these people often make better scientists. By all means correct his behaviour, but do so, initially, with the benefit of the doubt. If I may borrow a phrase from the Bible that I think sums up the behaviour asked of the rest of us here “speak the truth in love”.

        Heck, I know what it’s like to be the odd one out. I know what it’s like to have offended someone unintentionally, even if it was a situation where I should have known better, and to have everyone turn on you. It’s horrible and it doesn’t inspire change, it inspires defensiveness.

        3a) The comments would be no more or less OK, you’re right. I guess you’re assuming I’d treat the racist ones more seriously? FWIW I hear “racist” comments around my department far more than sexist ones.

        [[Additional note:

        3b) I don’t think it’s especially relevant here, but you go too far in condemning the flaw of generalisation. If we take the hypothetical argument that many people get stressed out when exposed to object A it would not be wrong to say we should be careful about having object A in our labs, despite the fact that some people can withstand it. The only issue is the validity of the premise (which, in the case of (the common interpretation of) these comments, is not valid, so it’s a moot point really).]]

        • I wish A Nony Mouse would tell us where he works. If, as he says, racist comments are far more common than sexist comments, we should be told so that we can avoid the place.

          • A. Nony Mouse says:

            Be careful what you wish for, you may not like the answer.

            Although I’d have thought that the absolute level of such comments was far more important than the relative level. Neither are especially frequent….

    • =8)-DX says:

      2) “Science can be expected to attract, shall we say, eccentric characters.”

      Why does “eccentric scientist” always translate to “he’s a terrible bigot but we have to tolerate it because he’s a famous genius.” No – saying sexist nonsense is not “controversial”, “breaking conventions”. It’s everyday, banaal, common reactionary conservatism. It’s the same defence as with Feynman, that totally misses the point – no one criticising scientists with these reputations think they are terrible for having a lot of sex or playing the bongos or living exciting unusal lives, or in this case for having “unconventional” opinions.

      What is being criticised are the actual counterfactual, immoral and measurably harmful opinions (or behaviours) and their expression in public from positions of authority – these ideas are just as bad if they are mainstream or radically controversial.

  4. Simon Higgins says:

    Isn’t there rather an air of faux outrage about this whole incident though? The original blog I saw said that this was a lunch sponsored by ‘powerful role model Korean female scientists and engineers’. So did they invite him hoping he’d say something dumb (and good for publicity)? Unlike David I do not find it too surprising that a 70+ male scientist who is an FRS and a Nobel laureate is an old-fashioned sexist and a bit of a fool. His views, at least as reported in the press, are not dissimilar to those of several of my former older colleagues 20+ years ago when I started my independent academic career. Thankfully things have changed, but I find some of the outrage and ‘he should be stripped of his FRS/publicly flogged’-type comments a bit ridiculous.

    • =8)-DX says:

      You’re seriously suggesting that Korean female scientists really wanted this guy to come to their event and talk down at them? Yeah that’s totally what women everywhere want: they love all the great publicity of having men say horrible sexist about them at their conferences.

  5. No, there is not faux-outrage, There is real outrage, and quite rightly so.
    Dorothy Bishop has it right, I think. The appropriate thing would be for the Royal Society to exclude Hunt from all selection and policy committees.

  6. I don’t think my outrage is faux. They probably invited him to lunch thinking he would say something rational and supportive. I don’t think he should be stripped of his FRS etc is rational either, being a good scientist doesn’t mean you have any other particular attributes. But I think it is more than fair to have a reaction to someone saying something that is so very damaging and foolish. I guess it is as I said above, when you are in a position of power what you say is very important – whether you like it or not. I do think it’s quite ok (clearly because I wrote this post) to stand up and say ‘hey that is not ok’ ….

  7. Dario Ummarino says:

    I think it’s completely fine for Tim Hunt to keep doing science and nobody is asking him to be banned from the scientific community. But I find weird for him to remain in an organization that, among other things, promote diversity and inclusion in science. He should actually renounce himself the FRS title given his views.

    “the criteria for FRS are excellence in science; there is no requirement that you be a decent human being” This is very sad and put the whole Society in a position of perpetual hypocrisy. This situation reminds me of what is happening in Universities. There’s an increasing number of “Mentoring sessions” for women by role model female scientists. You see more and more departments get silver and gold Athena Swan medals for how supportive they are for women. But at the end, I realize that most people are left with the feeling the nothing change. All these laudable initiatives don’t translate into effective solutions.

  8. Robert Insall says:

    That was a very well put blog post; thank you. Totally agree with your conclusion. There is no faux outrage in your message, though there is plenty washing around the net right now.
    The media LOVE to conflate one highly visible individual with the body politic. Whereas in truth Tim Hunt represents almost nobody but himself. What matters is what really happens in journals, funding bodies, hiring committees, conference organising panels. Journals and funding bodies now seem mostly fully signed up; conference panels are getting better, with lapses; I don’t know about hiring committees, my own experience is of decent fairness and sensitivity. If you listened to the news this morning you would think scientists as a whole are a mob of stovepipe hat-wearing anachronisms. We aren’t.
    It ought to be fairly obvious that you have about 5 Nobel laureates a year, some of whom are many years removed from real science , and many have been chosen for obsessional pursuit of one particular bit of science while ignoring the rest of life – and that if you search around in that pool you can find some wacko comments. It would be better for everyone if they were seen as such, not somehow statements representing the whole of science.
    Particularly if – pace the last sentence of your post – the resulting social media firestorm leaves female scientists feeling less than 100% welcome.

  9. Francis says:

    Well, is it the Korean female scientist association who invited him, or the journalists association who was organizing the larger event? If it is the journalists association, very strange for “journalists” to invite, in 2015, a 70-years old man to talk about women in science.

  10. L Buckley says:

    As a parent of a teenage girl who lives and breathes science (as do many of her female classmates) I was appalled by Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks and apology. His “honest” opinion appears to be that sex segregation in the workplace is ok. It is not. He has made the job of parents and teachers so much harder now to encourage females to follow scientific careers. The message he has given is that women are not welcome. He has brought the Royal Society and the UK into disrepute. I shall be watching to see how his RS Fellows react but won’t be holding my breath.

Comments are closed.