Scientists, we have a problem …

11 Jun

The comments of Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate, at a lunch function at a science journalism conference in South Korea, have raised a storm of comment in response. Just in case you have missed his bon mots, he has asserted that the ‘trouble’ with ‘girls’ in the lab is that ‘you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them they cry’. Yes, he did say that, and then he kind of apologised, saying it was ‘joke’ but also that he did mean what he said. You see, ‘emotional entanglements’ (!) ‘disrupt’ science and he felt the need to underline that. His solution? Sex-segregated labs, so that men would not be distracted by women. At this point you do wish he was kidding. A half-hearted apology for saying ‘silly’ things in a room full of female journalists does not quite cut it.

As other commentators have already pointed out, a saving grace of the incident may be that it has laid bare an open secret. When it comes to sexism, science hierarchies have unfortunate form. A smattering of female Nobel laureates, this year’s Field medal in mathematics, and the exposure of cases where awards were given to men when it was women in the lab who deserved the credit, do plenty to disabuse any notion that what Hunt might refer to as ‘the fairer sex’ are not up to scientific excellence. But the persistent scarcity of women in science – especially in the highest echelons – tells its own story. Only 17% of professors in STEM in the UK are female. The response is often that this simply reflects the fact that women are less likely to study sciences and to proceed into the profession. This is true, but not to the extent that the low figures suggest.

The Royal Society, of which Hunt is a Fellow, has moved to distance itself from Hunt’s comments, saying that ‘science needs women’, but falling short in some eyes of repudiation of his remarks. The Society has had its own issues, having seen a fall in the number of Fellowships awarded to women under some recent schemes. Indeed, a recent investigation was launched to understand why only 2 of 43 early career University Research Fellowships were awarded to women in the last round – in previous years up to a third of awards went to women. The investigation was not able to pinpoint particular systemic reasons for the low number of awards to women, but a suite of initiatives to promote fellowships more actively to women scientists, and to train selection panels in issues relating to bias has been put in place. As I have blogged previously, unconscious bias has been identified – through systematic research no less – as an issue in recruitment and retention of scientists.

Perhaps Tim Hunt’s outburst might concentrate the collective mind on attitudes which may still affect women in science. After all, even Stephen Hawking declared women a ‘mystery’. It is incumbent on scientists now to ensure that the ‘problem’ of women in science is seen as a problem in the parts of the professional hierarchy, and not of women. Hunt’s idea that a ‘solution’ to the ‘distractions’ of women is to segregate them into labs of their own, is perhaps the most damaging of all. Women are not ‘the other’ – we are people working on equal terms to solve the problems of the world. And if that is not already actually the case, it is old men of science who have the problem.





4 Responses to “Scientists, we have a problem …”

  1. stephaniedaviesarai June 11, 2015 at 7:41 AM #

    These objective logical male scientists huh…

  2. Thomas Basbøll (@ThomasBasboell) July 10, 2015 at 11:57 AM #

    Like I said on Twitter, I think you’re not giving Tim Hunt credit for actually stating the “open secret”. He was trying to do exactly the thing you are glad happened.

    That is, it’s uncharitable of you to describe his intended meaning as “a saving grace of the incident”, when at this point it’s pretty clear that that meaning was distorted by his clumsy attempt at being humorous and the media’s complete lack of curiosity about what he might actually have meant. For example, you summarize his remarks as seriously arguing for sex-segregated labs, though this was obviously a “modest proposal” on his part.

    You are construing the intended primary effect of (this small part of) his remarks, i.e., to be open about a particular difficulty that remains in the relations between men and women in the lab, as an unintended side-effect of what he said, mediated, I guess, by the noble work of the journalists who distorted his meaning (as “Victorian” and “misogynist”), and the administrators who turned it into an international incident by asking (his wife to ask) him to resign.

    If you’re really interested in the difficulty of “combining work and family life”, I think you should approach Sir Tim’s remarks with greater interpretative charity, and in the spirit of reaching an understanding–in this case, across generations. After all, it seems plausible to think that when he was talking about “girls the lab”, he was talking about how he in fact met his wife.

    I’m all for engaging with his remarks, even to criticize him for what appears to be somewhat sentimental attitude about women (not uncommon to men his age, and worthy of criticism when they express it). But to celebrate his ouster because his apology didn’t “cut it”, is simply not going to help us make progress on this issue.

    • wonklifebalance July 10, 2015 at 1:22 PM #

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. As you say it is important to make progress on this issue and to reach understanding while perspectives on the incident may vary.

  3. Thomas Basbøll (@ThomasBasboell) July 10, 2015 at 2:07 PM #

    I’m happy to contibute. In the spirit of continuing the conversation, I’ve written a post over at my blog also. Have at it.

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