“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:
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.
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