The aftermath of Tim Hunt's sexist remarks on women in science labs shows a man scrambling for recognition as scientists debate his sincerity and commitment. Where does action and apology meet?
Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt has resigned all posts and left his legacy in disgrace after making sexist comments about relationships in science labs.
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The Associated Press recounts that during a speech on Tuesday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea, his comments about women scientists in labs were not well-received. In an attempt at misguided humor, the 72-year-old proclaimed, "You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry."
Standing behind the actions and words, Hunt opened up to the Observer on what losing all the posts and destroying legacy meant. Claiming to have gone “mad,” he describes the experience. “I was very nervous and a bit confused but, yes, I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way.”
Women scientists and journalists in the audience may not believe him.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today program, the scientist continued to speak down to women. “It's terribly important that you can criticize people's ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth.” Remember, ladies. Men never cry in lab. Ever.
Adding, “I'm really, really sorry I caused any offense, that's awful. I certainly didn't mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually." See, women. No reason to be offended. He only said what he meant to, so take the apology and run with it.
Winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for cell duplication through protein molecule discovery with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell, the British man feels trapped against a system that didn’t hear him out. Doing well in science wasn’t enough.
Believing the “polite applause” meant no one was offended, he seemed confused when speaking to the Observer since “no one accused me of being a sexist pig.”
Connie St. Louis, a lecturer in science journalism at City University, also spoke with the BBC and describes a different reaction from the audience. On top of insulting trhe South Korean hosts, St. Louis points out that "nobody was laughing, everybody was stony-faced.” Continuing for five to seven minutes, the audience sat in a short of shocked state.
"It was just really shocking. It was culturally insensitive and it was very sexist. I just thought, 'Where in the world do you think you are that you can be making these kind of comments in 2015?'”
University College London Professor Mary Collins believes in her husband said something unbelievably stupid, but didn’t deserve to be stripped of his posts or the rancor of the university.
“You can see why it could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s. Nevertheless he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.”
The false equivalency here being Collins brand of feminism is everyone else’s, on top of the ‘it was his generation’ refrain many women hear when reporting casual sexism to higher managers. The couple is perturbed that a senior official forced Hunt out of his position as honorary lecturer.
“Tim had to resign immediately or be sacked – though I was told it would be treated as a low-key affair. Tim duly emailed his resignation when he got home. The university promptly announced his resignation on its website and started tweeting that they had got rid of him.”
Collins discusses the impact on family and employment. “Essentially, they had hung both of us out to dry. They certainly did not treat it as a low-key affair. I got no warning about the announcement and no offer of help, even though I have worked there for nearly 20 years. It has done me lasting damage. What they did was unacceptable.”
The European Research Council (ERC) quickly followed suit, sacking the scientist from his committee. And that left a deep impression. “That really hurt. I had spent years helping to set it up. I gave up working in the lab to help promote European science for the ERC.” And The Royal Society released him from awards committee as well.
Of course, the Observer’s criticism of social media’s inability to accept sexist remarks showcases the problem at large: vocal women use “the savage power of Twitter,” yet those who toe-the-line to the point of creating a funny meme after years of comments are considered emotional.
Fighting back misogyny and sexism through humor seems to be a problem, too. Darn those emotions, ladies! Curtail at all costs! And ignore all hashtags of distractinglysexy scientists. However Hunt’s own emotional state is considered completely acceptable, especially the hurt at being called out for making comments that are unacceptable in a changing social sphere.
‘A wonderful time’
Yet some women have spoken up in defense of Hunt, saying the comments were a one-off, stupid statement and not a testament to his role as professor and scientist. Plant biologist and Cambridge University Professor Ottoline Leyser spoke to the Observer about her time under his tutelage in undergraduate school.
“It is quite clear to me that he is not a sexist in any way. I don’t know why he said those silly things, but the way his remarks have been taken up implies that women in science are having a horrible time. That is not the case. I, for one, am having a wonderful time.”
The double-standard, gender bias wouldn’t be a big deal if not for the fact many governments and departments are courting women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields due to dearth. When a laureate believes women to be weaker, the message broadcasts loud and clear that the reaction among those in charge is okay and nothing needs to done about it.
But Hunt is realistic in what will happen in a scientific capacity. “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic. I have been hung to dry by academic institutes who have not even bothered to ask me for my side of affairs.”
Leyser told the Associated Press that “we're all of us terrified. Blaming the social media element again. "In this media age, when sound bites spread so quickly, an off-the-cuff remark after a lunch in some conference can suddenly result in the fatal destruction of your career."
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While losing a lifetime’s worth of work must be devastating, Tim Hunt’s current free fall should be a reminder that when speaking in public one must always remember the audience and who is listening. Women have always been in the science field, working at helping humans discover the surrounding world, making a healthier place, and they deserve the same recognition without flinging a terrible line from a badly written rom-com in return.