What can we learn from Tim hunt’s ‘problem with girls’: A female scientist’s opinion

Tim_Hunt_at_UCSF_05_2009_(4)Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” – This is the ill-conceived comment made recently by Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt. A statement which spawned a spiral of media attention and ultimately lead to his forced resignation from position as Honorary Professor within the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences.

Crass, rude and culturally blind? Tim committed career suicide during his speech in a moment akin to watching a car crash in slow motion. Yes, anyone could have told Tim that this was not a smart move. But, why did an intelligent man who, on paper, doesn’t present as being your typical chauvinist pig make such insensitive comments and what can we learn from this?

From a brief background search, Tim is not someone I would have pegged as a chauvinist. He is married to Professor Mary Collins, a highly successful female scientist and an advocate for women in S.T.E.M subjects. Throughout his eminent career he has also worked with and mentored numerous female academics and has previously acknowledged their contribution to his Nobel winning discovery. Indeed, a number of his former female collaborators and confidants have recently spoken out in support of Tim’s character – including Manchester University’s own President and Vice-Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell.

A few years ago I also had the pleasure of meeting Tim with a small group of PhD students. To be honest, at the time I was stuck in an academic rut and felt like science just wasn’t my calling – volunteering for the discussion group with Tim was really just my elaborate way of escaping the lab for a few hours. However, I found the resulting discussion both stimulating and inspiring. Tim presented as a very ‘down to earth’ chap; he extolled the benefits of collaborations in science, acknowledged how hard discovery really is and encouraged us to nurture a healthy work-life balance. Although I certainly didn’t “fall in love with him”, I left with a positive impression of him both as a person and a scientist but, most importantly, I felt rejuvenated and ready to get back in the lab.

So, what happened? Why would a man surrounded by successful professional women make such a tasteless comment? And, was UCL’s response to the media storm that followed justified?

To answer these questions there are three important points we must first consider:

1) Context.

Twitter’s 140 character restriction is pretty limiting when it comes to contextualising statements. So, I’m happy to stand up and say that I don’t really have a clue how Tim’s remarks were delivered, or what his intention was at the time. But, one thing I’m beginning to realise is that reporting of both his intention and, in some cases, his actual words has been far from accurate. One of the most damning examples of this type of shoddy journalism is the observation that many mainstream media sources state that Tim admitted to being a chauvinist during his speech – a statement I believe to be misleading.

Whilst researching this article I listened to the original broadcast of BBC’s Today show discussing Tim’s comments and I was intrigued to hear conference attendee Connie St Louie state that “Tim stood up and said ‘I hope the women have prepared the lunch, I’m a male chauvinist pig”. Was this the comment these articles were referring to? If so, they were without doubt way off the mark in reporting his chauvinistic confession. To my ears this comment was undoubtedly said in jest. Indeed, if I were at the luncheon listening to his speech he certainly would have got a laugh from me! Further to this, I noted that, on the same show, Tim was introduced as “the scientist who said that women are for loving not for science” – if this isn’t a case of twisting his words to better fit their intended portrayal of his character I don’t know what is?

It seems to me that a whole storm of media attention and twitter hashtagging has spawned from a few lines presented without any real context. Personally, I’m waiting for someone to report Tim’s speech in its entirety since, until this happens, I can do little more than watch what’s going on from a comfortable position on the fence.

2)  Zeitgeist

Science is in a state of transition. Gone are the days of the ‘gentleman’ scientist, acting on instinct and funding research into whatever takes his fancy. With the introduction of government funding and charitable contributions, the scientific career path is open to many more people – and this is great. But, one striking observation is that, despite similar achievement and engagement early on in the education system, women still make up a shockingly low proportion of academic scientists (for facts and figures see here). A debate currently rages as to why so few women pursue the scientific career path, is it nature, nurture, or stern looks from the patriarchy? The jury is still out, but one thing is certain, it’s an emotive and very personal topic for many women.

Enter Tim. Speaking at a luncheon for women scientists and engineers Tim was entering a heated emotive atmosphere. Amongst the audience you would likely find a number of women who felt confident and comfortable combining their femininity with an academic career but, undoubtedly many others felt persecuted and let down by a male-driven field. Perhaps he was nervous, perhaps he’d had a little too much complimentary Champagne or perhaps he was used to being surrounded by happy, confident female academics who enjoy the occasional jibe…Whatever the case, Tim missed the mark by a mile and left many believing that he was part of the problem.

3) Reasonable punishment.

So, considering what we know about Tim and about what he said, where does this leave us?

A basic background check on Tim comes up clean, he seems like a pretty reasonable guy and a number of eminent female scientists are happy to defend his character. But, he did make some thoughtless comments, which he later defended – in his statement to the BBC he says “It’s terribly important that you can criticise people’s ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that, in my experience, diminishes the science”. This statement certainly makes his comments seem less jocular and lends credence to the idea that there may indeed be a kernel of truth behind his ‘jokes’. But, where should we go from here?

This is where the debate becomes heated. I personally believe that the punishment doled out to Tim does not fit the crime. Alongside a good track record of facilitating and working with female academics, Tim is also an outstanding scientist who, as a whole, seems to be spending his post-research years promoting the scientific career path (to both men and women). Stripping him of his position at UCL and, as a result, also of his other academic positions and making him ‘toxic’ to the industry does not seem appropriate. I’m certainly not suggesting that punishment isn’t necessary, only that we have taken this too far.

I also wonder if this backlash is side-stepping some important questions? Does Tim’s comment about women ‘crying’ highlight a viewpoint held by other academics? If so, is it then pertinent to use this as a springboard into discussions about managing researchers with different personality types and how to get the best out of all employees? Perhaps we can even use this as an opportunity to build a better understanding of existing prejudices in the field and work towards addressing these?

One thing is certain, Tim’s comments and his subsequent treatment have divided opinions both within and outside the academic community. Although I personally believe he has been treated too harshly, I know colleagues who think differently – In a recent Facebook debate, two of my fellow female colleagues had this to say:

I still think it’s sad that he didn’t offer a genuine apology before he ruined his and his wife’s career. Women today might think that they don’t have to be feminist because they have it all, but they have no idea how precarious our position is and how little sexism needs to become rampant again. Mysogyny is an aggressive weed with deep roots and it needs to be stamped on as soon as it raises its head, even as a joke. So I agree that unfortunately there was nothing else UCL could have done.” – Quote: Jadwiga Nazimek

He isn’t being demonized as sexist, he said a sexist thing, followed by a ‘sorrynotsorry’, and therefore has been rightly called sexist. It’s not fair to generalise his personal experience to all women, or in fact to all men, by implying these are female-specific behaviours, and that ‘girls’ are impossible to work with because of them.” – Quote: Sarah Ryan

We’d love to hear your opinions on the topic, so please add your voice to the debate in the comments section below.

Post by: Sarah Fox

7 thoughts on “What can we learn from Tim hunt’s ‘problem with girls’: A female scientist’s opinion

    • This sounds as if it was a satiric comment but like all satire which hits to the kernel of truth, it needs to be timed. Perhaps his harmartia is his lack of judgement in timing and knowing the implications of being read out of context to an already volatile audience immersed in emotional responses to this very sensitive subject. I work with women worldwide on executive negotiation and I find they do not like confronting behaviours that must be addressed. That does not let him off the hook though because there are equally indefensible statements we can make about men. Falling in love as he puts it requires a second party which means a witting partner to the event – a male.

  1. I am a female, mid-fifties, very math/science oriented. Went to MIT, worked with computers on Wall Street. So I’m used to being in a ‘male-dominated’ world and I definitely had experiences where I felt I was being denigrated or overlooked simply because of my sex.

    Having said that, I think this whole incident is (probably) over-blown. ‘Context’ and ‘tone of voice’ and ‘facial expression’ are such vital parts of human communication, yet all that is completely ignored in every article I’ve read about this incident.

    Also, from what I’ve seen, no one has actually accused this gentleman of ‘acting’ sexist, right? Actions speak louder than words.

  2. Not just scientists, but academics in general can naturally be very sensitive to criticism. This has led not only to interdepartmental backbiting and abandonment of careers (to say nothing of the increasingly frequent demands that “trigger warnings” be attached to “sensitive” texts in university courses), but to law suits and criminal prosecutions at which juries have had to try to make sense of various academic quarrels. In this regard, see the documentation of America’s leading criminal satire case, focused on unwanted criticism apparently conveyed in the form of a hoax at New York University, at:


  3. This would not only imply to girls but males too. lets say its part of human nature nobody loves being criticized, gossiped about and all such funny behaviors. but this topic was about girls so would you please as well do research on the boys then we shall be able to compare the findings?

  4. I think a great injustice has been done here: These are Connie St Louis’s words on the BBC interview:

    “He stood up, declared that the women had probably prepared the lunch because that is their role…”

    She then goes on to describe how nobody was laughing.

    Nearly all of these bits of conversation she reported have been either shown to be interpretable in a more benign light, or outright contested.

    I think your own impression of Hunt is likely the truer of the two.

  5. Should a university resemble a 100% politically correct Hollywood show with the producers regarding scientists as their actors, adjusting the numbers of sexes and minorities and dictating when they should cry and laugh and what they should say?

    The removal of Sir Tim Hunt is the second case of political persecution of a Nobel laureate, the first was that of James Watson. In both cases, their alleged “crime” was purely political, and it was framed in political slogans, “racism” and “sexism”.

    The public debate around the decision of UCL to remove Tim Hunt is missing the point. (Were his words a joke or not? Was there enough “sexism” in his words? Did twitter remove Tim Hunt?) Let’s now get serious and ask: Was the removal of Tim Hunt legal? I believe it was completely illegal. And the law does exist here, it is first – the law against discrimination and second – the law protecting freedom of speech.

    Discrimination is an act of using irrelevant considerations (such as sex, colour of skin, etc.) in a decision/judgement made by an official against an individual. Discrimination is taken as an act denying an individual his or her human right(s). Such act is illegal, and the discrimination must be proved. There is no claim and no evidence that Sir Tim Hunt has committed such act. His speech did not represent any decision, and, being a joke or not being a joke, did not, and was not even capable of damaging/changing the standing of any women before the law or denying their human rights.

    Then, what is the accusation against him? The official explanation is the letter of Professor Michael Arthur, UCL President & Provost, “Provost’s View: Women in Science”, see https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/staff/staff-news/0615/26062015-provosts-view-women-in-science

    This is a remarkable document. In it, Michael Arthur 1) did not refer to any law whatsoever, 2) refused, in his own words, to “…repeat or re-analyse who said what…”, i. e. refused to present the evidence, 3) justified the removal of Sir Tim Hunt solely on his (determined by the administration) “sexism”. The text seems to be written by a political agitator in the smashing style of Leon Trotsky, totally disrespectful of the law and civilized academic tradition. He calls the removal of Tim Hunt an “episode”.

    In sharp contrast with discrimination which, in a particular decision, is depriving individuals of their human rights, “sexism” in a speech is incapable of doing this. The accusation of “sexism” here is no more than a political opinion, a label which cannot be used to punish anyone. Therefore, the removal of Tim Hunt was an illegal act, patently – a political persecution. Moreover, it was an act of discrimination and a denial of the basic human right – freedom of speech.

    Looking closer at this “episode”, I believe it was designed not even so much against Tim Hunt, but with the purpose of establishing a precedent for persecution of any political dissent. Tim Hunt was chosen as one who loved his university and would not start a legal fight. He was chosen as a top scientist to show that no one is immune to political persecution, and that interests of science are the last item on the administration agenda.

    As a Provost, Michael Arthur failed to uphold the law and academic freedom. As a President, he failed to act impartially and, actually, fuelled the “gender war”. In his letter, he claims to have acted on behalf of women, but the women appeared on the side of their former teacher, actually proving that Michael Arthur’s claim of acting on their behalf is a false claim. UCL urgently needs the new Provost and the new President.

    An additional point is that Tim Hunt resignation was obtained by fraud, a humiliating fraud and psychological calculated pressure. He fraudulently was led to believe that he had no choice. If you look at the “process” by which it was obtained, the ambush on a plane, the message that was sent to his wife, etc., it is quite clear. Add to this later “justifications” by M. Arthur, his “apologies”.

    Finally, it is important to understand that an employee does not sell his whole self to his employer. A woman cannot be obliged to sleep with her boss. Why, may I ask, a university includes political and social agenda in its rules for the employees? The scope of this agenda must be severely restricted to respect basic human rights of all its employees. A public university cannot be run as a political party or a Hollywood show.

    I had posted a few comments on the matter at http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2015/06/15/what-next-after-tim-hunt-just1action4wis/
    My web page: http://www.universitytorontofraud.com
    My email is probably hacked.

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