Today, I became annoyed by an article in 'The Guardian'. It was a piece discussing the consequences for the Nobel Laureate British biochemist, Sir Tim Hunt, after his disastrous speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul last week.
For anyone out of the loop, Hunt announced:
"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."
He then went on to state he was in favour of single sex laboratories.
To cement the deal, this was at a luncheon for female scientists and journalists; the people most likely to recognise the offence and be professionally equipped to take it to the world within 30 seconds. A lead balloon would float more gently.
The subsequent uproar saw Hunt being forced to resign from his honorary professorship at University College London, The Royal Society and at the European Research Council. His career --he admits-- is in sheds. “I have been hung out to dry,” he told the Guardian.
The Guardian article is sympathetic to Hunt. This one statement has seen his life work in tatters and his home hounded by journalists prying into his family's private affairs. I, too, am sympathetic. Hunt badly misjudged a situation that was meant to be taken with light humour. It is unlikely he intended to be sexist with a wife who is a senior immunologist, and his backers are adamant that Hunt is highly supportive of young scientists, completely irrespective of their gender.
What is annoying me is that neither the Guardian article nor Hunt seem to understand why what he said was a problem.
Hunt's apology underlines this fact when he told the BBC,
"I'm really, really sorry I caused any offence, that's awful. I certainly didn't mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually."
The implication is that he believes his words struck a nerve due to sensitivity of his audience. This is not a totally unreasonable guess: with the percentage of women in STEM occupations at just 13%, the majority of people in Hunt's audience had likely personally experienced sexism during their careers. However, a hurt 13% is unlikely to have created a ruckus of this size and does not explain the many male supporters who appeared on my twitter feed.
So, Sir Tim Hunt, in case you happen to read this, here is the issue:
Every person that laughs at your problem with women in the lab causes another girl to drop out of science.
The fraction of women decreases at every stage in the science career track, but a substantial number are lost during school. This occurs right around the time where gender identity is developing. Jokes suggesting women's work ability is impaired by over-emotion, that easy-to-use tools are 'girly' or the use of gendered idioms such as 'boys with toys' paints a picture of a men-only world. A young girl therefore has the choice of identifying as female or considering a career in science.
What kind of crazy, batshit choice is that?
I avoided part of these problems by attending a single sex school in my early to middle teens; a step that has been suggested boosts the number of girls going into science. My parents are also scientists, although notably my mother originally completed her degrees in the arts, retraining in science once my brother and I were in our teens. Since she is now about to graduate with a PhD in Geology, it seems neither ability nor interest kept her out of the field the first time.
And it doesn't stop there. Very few people are outrightly sexist. Gone are the days where a professor could stand up in an engineering lecture hall and inform the female students he would fail them because he did not believe they belonged in the field. However, ideas that women are less skilled at science or less focussed because of family obligations results in a male candidate being more frequently selected over an equally qualified female one. Salary differences in STEM for men and women differ by 25%, a result that recently caused McMaster University in Canada to boost all its female faculty's salaries by $3.5K.
This non-intentional sexism due to deep rooted inhibitions is known as 'systematic bias'. It is reinforced daily by off-hand comments such as Hunt's which establish such facts as common knowledge.
So after having wedged his foot in his mouth to the extent his shoe is still on the ground, what is next for Hunt? I think it's worth noting that not everything that came out of his declaration was bad. On twitter, female scientists started the tag #DistractinglySexy, showing themselves decked out in laboratory safety gear that has yet to make it to the cover of 'Playboy'.
The result is one of the most effective anti-discrimination movements online, with a display of the amazingly varied careers women scientists are involved in. Along with the #GirlsWithToys tag, it shows images guaranteed to double the science uptake of both genders in any school in the world.
And it was started by Tim Hunt.
There is a saying, 'No publicity is bad publicity'. I doubt Hunt is feeling this right now, but perhaps there is an opportunity. If he understood his real error and spoke up on systematic sexism, he would have an audience that would make the attention he received for his Nobel Prize look like a teddy bear's picnic. He clearly has extensive experience in leading laboratories and science committees, both of which could be applied to making a serious contribution to the awareness of unintentional discrimination.
A man with first hand experience of world leading science and with being called out in an error of judgement? Who wouldn't hear him talk? I'd go.
[ADDENDUM: A transcript of Tim Hunt's talk was later acquired by 'The Times'. It confirmed that Hunt meant the comment to be in jest, as he continued by saying 'Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.' The statement was then met with laughter. This clarifies Hunt's views, rather better than his apology on the BBC. Yet, stating there are difficulties working with women in the laboratory --even in jest-- piles onto the systematic bias when hiring rounds begin. He didn't deserve the fallout from his comments, but they were genuinely problematic.]