Sexism in Science and Tim Hunt

Tim Hunt
Tim Hunt.

Sexism in science is a very real, big problem, and the Tim Hunt situation is just one example. For a reality check on that particular train wreck and background see this piece by Connie St Louis.

The sexism prevalent in science not only has negatively affected tens of thousands of scientists, but also is quite harmful to science overall and to society.

This sexism manifests at countless levels from words to policies to actions. It can be conscious or unconscious. It can be outright sexual harassment.

In Tim Hunt’s case, I find his words to be very harmful, but what concerns me more is that I believe that his words are an accurate window into his thoughts and mentality. He may have done some positive things over the years for some women in science such as his own trainees, but his particular brand of “man versus girl” mentality reflects a persistent and toxic world view. As a Nobel Laureate and leader in science, over the decades his sexist views may well have infected countless others and harmed many.

I don’t buy the “it was just a joke” attempt to walk it back. I’m not really buying the “this is an attack on academic freedom” gambit either when it comes to the push back against the reaction to Hunt.

Sure, social media can be a hell of a maelstrom and a very unforgiving one. I regularly find myself thinking about that reality as a science blogger and academic. Who isn’t worried they might say or write the wrong thing?  It would be nuts not to be awed and conscious over the power of that maelstrom to explode. At the same time, Tim Hunt himself is responsible for his words and actions. He has a special responsibility in his position and in that regard he failed. Was the reaction to his words an overreaction on social media or appropriate all things considered?

As much as this recent high-profile case has caused understandable concern and even some anger, at the same time there is the at least mildly heartening sense that the overall level of consciousness is increasing. Still is that already translating to major concrete outcomes that are positive and measurable? I’m not sure.

For myself I would say that today as compared to past years I am far more conscious of the gender make up of the committees that I serve on, the meetings that I go to or cover on this blog, etc. and aware of the possibility of unconscious bias on my part. I continue to be committed to the importance of diversity and equality in science.

Battling sexism and other discrimination in science is a long slog of a marathon, but I believe the efforts will pay off overall.

8 thoughts on “Sexism in Science and Tim Hunt”

  1. But Sir Tim Hunt was hounded out of his position because it was argued that his attitudes discriminated against women who were entering science… that they reflected a “man versus girl mentality” in science which many women find offputting… that women are naturally vulnerable and weak-minded and that they can’t cope with a hurtful joke from a senior scientist… that, well you can see how most of the reaction to the “joke” ended up being more sexist than the joke itself.

  2. I’m with Nicholas Taleb on this. As he put it: “U.K. universities’ largest donor is Saudi Arabia (where women can’t drive and bloggers are whipped and jailed). They gladly take the money — unconditionally. But the administration of UCL takes it out on a defenseless 72 year old scientist who made a stupid locker room joke, and doesn’t represent any danger or potential profit. This is a combination of hypocrisy, cowardice and prostitution.”

    UCL’s treatment of Tim Hunt is downright shameful. Instead of defending an eminent scientist and faculty member — one of their own — they participated in his mob-lynching. Deplorable. One can’t even crack jokes these days, it seems…

  3. Tim Hunt’s Nobel talk was outstanding and approachable, informative too . Hilda Bastion did the best blog for convincing me of how serious this is I do think sometimes people have changes in their brains or culture shock or illness or altitude that can cause them to say things that would have been better left unsaid. He didn’t lose science positions, they were appointments where he would share good will and be a public ambassador and in this area the remarks made a massive rift. I think it was great the way women responded in unity with humor and intellect with #distractinglysexy on Twitter. They are strong!

  4. Brian Sanderson

    I don’t know Tim Hunt. Do you? I do not subscribe to the notion that a person should be defined by this or that comment that they made. That is what has happened here and it is deplorable.

    Unless you really do know the man, I’d suggest that you play the comment not the man.

    There are conflicting accounts. From what I have been able to make out by looking at multiple sources, I’d say that there is a better than even chance that his words were intended as self-depreciating humour and that they were taken out of context with the rest of his talk.

    Humour does not always translate well from one culture to another. But I am firmly of the opinion that no topic is so sacrosanct that it cannot be the subject of humour. Tyrants say otherwise, of course.

    As for academic freedom… It is under attack from so many directions, nowadays. Academic freedom is precious above all else, not for the sake of university profs, rather for the sake of the rest of us who will be truly sunk if our best and brightest cannot speak and publish freely.

  5. Then again, the story is richer and more powerful, more human and more useful for the world – if you wait for the end and listen carefully to the detail!

  6. I agree. There are certain things you can’t say even as a “joke”. Furthermore, a person of his standing ought to know the impact of his comments; it’s not some teenage jock bantering among his mates in a locker room. But , to be honest, whether the punishment was proportional to his offence, I don’t know.

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