August 6, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

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.

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