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#DistractinglySexy – the trouble with science

June 18, 2015

If you’re in the English-speaking world you’d have to have been living under a stone for the last week to have missed the furore that followed Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks at a conference in Seoul. In case you have been living under that stone, at a lunch for science journalists the Nobel prizewinner said: “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 criticize them they cry.” He has since apologised for his ‘joke’ –  but since he still stands by his remarks, you have to wonder what the point of the apology was, it’s not an apology if you reiterate the offensive comments you initially made. Although Sir Tim has complained that no-one has listened to his version of events he’s been given enough of a platform to complain he’s been ‘hung out to dry’; that he was forced to resign by UCL and the European Research Council (ERC); that his career has been ruined and that no-one was interested in his side of the story.

When Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks were initially published, I was horrified. How could an eminent scientist be so insensitive and, well, stupid? Referring to women scientists as ‘girls’? How extraordinarily demeaning. Complaining that the ‘trouble’ was with them? Not with his own idiotic chauvinist attitudes? Calling for single sex laboratories to tackle ‘the problem’? This ‘problem’ that no-one else had? It felt like the years were rolling back and we’d returned to the days when male archaeologists had called for single sex excavations to prevent scandals and male workers being ‘distracted’ and unable to ‘act naturally’*.

However, I was then immediately heartened by the reaction his comments provoked. With the, inevitable, exception of Boris Johnson, no-one has argued that Sir Tim Hunt was right in what he said, rather  his (few**) supporters have focussed on claiming the affair has been blown out of proportion and blaming social media users, particularly Twitterers, for his fall from grace. Now, I don’t intend to discuss the rights and wrongs of him being forced to resign from UCL, the ERC and the Royal Society awards committee, I do think that’s an extreme reaction but I think it’s more important to ask how someone with such attitudes was appointed in the first place. I’ll come back to this, but before then let’s look at some of that social media; there have been some wonderful blog posts and Michael Eisen’s is particularly strong. He explains that he met Sir Tim Hunt and enjoyed his company at a meeting of young scientists in Kashmir earlier this year but was horrified by his Korean speech:      ‘When I am thinking about what happened here, I am not thinking about how Twitter hordes brought down a good man because he had a bad day. I am instead thinking about what it says to the women in that room in Kashmir that this leading man of science – who it was clear everybody at the meeting revered – had listened to their stories and absorbed nothing. It is unconscionable that, barely a month after listening to a women moved to tears as she recounted a sexual assault from a senior colleague and how hard it was for her to regain her career, Hunt would choose to mock women in science as teary love interests’ – See more here.

On Twitter and Facebook there has been the hilarious #DistractinglySexy thread mocking Tim Hunt’s unfunny joke with real humour, many of the photos – and quotes – have come from archaeologists so go and check it out; you can even buy a t shirt to warn people of your distracting sexiness or signs to warn people they’re entering a mixed gender lab (I apologise for the lack of images, I can’t seem to load them today, ironic, eh? Woman writing about stereotypes has a technology fail).

Obviously, not all the Twitter comments have been so well thought out, not all of them are funny and some are simply abusive. Twitter trolls exist as we all know, but Sir Tim Hunt has faced nothing like the terrifying aggression and vitriol Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez and others, mainly women, have received. He has lost an honorary post, journalists briefly camped on his doorstep and he and his wife (Professor Mary Collins, a senior immunologist) have had an uncomfortable time and face a very different future to the one they’d expected. But was this entirely because of social media, as he and his supporters believe, or because his publicly expressed views run counter to the image UCL, the ERC and the Royal Society wish to present? I have no idea not being privy to either body’s decisions, but it seems unlikely that these decisions were made solely as a result of Twitter users. What the Twitter thread does demonstrate is that if you publicly make ill-judged remarks you will be publicly, and overwhelmingly, ridiculed – and, yes, I am aware that you can be ridiculed for making reasonable remarks too –  I find this heartening.

However, (you knew there had to be caveat didn’t you?) wonderful as this outpouring of scorn has been, it shouldn’t disguise the fact that science is discriminatory. Some of those who support Sir Tim Hunt are freely acknowledging that science as a whole needs to do more to redress the balance. Look at the figures – in the UK, where women make up nearly half of the work force, only 13% of those working in science, technology or engineering are women. In academia there are more women involved in these areas but they still only constitute 16% of full-time professors. Archaeology does much better, figures from the ECU suggest the divide is 43% female to 57% male. Again we need to be wary of complacency, this is only in academia not in all aspects of archaeology, the figures are solely for the UK and, certainly in the UK, archaeology is a predominantly white subject. It’s also overridingly studied and staffed by the able-bodied, which again isn’t an accurate reflection of the UK population. We may be getting close to gender equality but we’ve got a long, long way to go before archaeology is a truly equal opportunities subject.

This is why attitudes and remarks matter, this is why it matters who is appointed to the top posts in our societies and universities. Sir Tim Hunt is undoubtedly a brilliant scientist as Professor Brian Cox maintains, but if we want women – and people of non-white origin – to progress in science, in archaeology, in all aspects of life, and I do, then we have to appoint people who welcome diversity. We have to seriously embrace the idea of gender and ethnic equality and work towards that aim, not just say we’re doing so. The plant biologist Professor Ottoline Leyser has defended Tim Hunt by saying: ‘I don’t know why he said those silly things, but the way his remarks have been taken up implies that women in science are having a horrible time. That is not the case. I, for one, am having a wonderful time.” Again this is heartening and, as an archaeologist, I too am having a wonderful time but we have to accept that not everyone is happy with the status quo and we have to listen and take on board their complaints. We have to make it clear that such stupid remarks about women, or anyone, are not acceptable. And, we have to ask institutions like UCL, the ERC and the Royal Society ‘if you knew Sir Tim Hunt held these beliefs about women, why did you think he was an acceptable appointee?’

‘k, I’m getting off my soapbox now, have a great weekend


* Professor John Percival Droop in Archaeological Excavation (1915) he also wanted single sex excavations as did F.W Albright and see Ivor Noël Hume’s remarks here.

** Unsurprisingly most of the defence of Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks have been published in the Daily Mail – there’s one particularly unpleasant piece by Sarah Vine that includes every possible stereotype about feminists. I would link to it but I have this app blocking me and I feel why give the Mail the site traffic? It only encourages them!



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