There won’t be many academics in the Twittersphere who are unfamiliar with the parable of Professor Tim Hunt, the Nobel prize winner whose career came to an undignified end after making sexist remarks about women in science. In early June 2015, at a lunch for women in science, Professor Hunt remarked that women in laboratories are problematic because of the tears and sex (to summarise). These statements (google if you want to see them) were picked up by various media and there was a resulting social and mainstream media stink. With some speed Hunt was asked to resign by University College London where he was an Emeritus professor. He also resigned from positions with the Royal Society and the European Research Council.
Predictably this has triggered a number of opinion pieces and twitter hashtags (#distractinglysexy for example). Many have argued that these resignations were just, while other including Professor Brian Cox and Professor Richard Dawkins (and Boris Johnson) feel aggrieved on behalf of Tim Hunt. I’ve been muddling through what my thoughts are and why I feel some discomfort over the resulting focus on this one person. There are two main concerns I have; the well-being of Tim Hunt and what these ‘resignations’ means for the organisations.
Firstly, Tim Hunt’s well-being. Whenever these kinds of social media storms occur I worry for those at their ‘eye’. As Tim Hunt’s positions were honourary, I don’t know what, if any, employment protection he would have had. He may well not be protected by a disciplinary process where his employer would have a duty of care towards him. I know nothing of his personal circumstances, but I hope he is being well cared for. His comments were sexist and there should be consequences. However, there are human beings at the centre of this story and that should never be forgotten.
More broadly, I find myself wondering whether the resignations were appropriate. Hunt’s comments were unusual in that they were said in a public forum. I’ve seen very similar ‘jokes’ made, and so far I’m not aware that any of those men have faced penalties. Sometime ago I attended a conference where one of the opening speakers commented that he had felt honoured to be invited to attend an international conference – but then he saw how many women there were in the audience and realised it wasn’t prestigious after all. So, it strikes me that Tim Hunt has faced these penalties because he said out loud what others mutter in private.
This leads me to the idea that Hunt is a ‘sacrificial lamb’ of some kind. Even before the nauseating pieces by Boris Johnson and the gang, I predicted that Hunt would be positioned by some as a martyr to feminism. However, I think he’s the opposite. Organisations such as UCL can demonstrate their intolerance of sexism by calling for the resignation of someone in a high profile position. Wow, how impressive. They must really dislike sexism! However, to what extent are all of these organisations tackling the day to day, insidious, grinding sexism which women face? The kind which is far politer, whispered and culturally embedded. When an organisation effectively sacks a high profile person, for sexist or racist language, do they then absolve themselves of responsibility to look inwards. To tackle the more difficult cultural change, rather than engage in a high profile act which provides an image inclusivity.
I would have preferred an investigation of some kind – given Hunt’s comments we have to wonder how women who have worked in his labs have fared. He should have been given the chance to explain, to learn and perhaps to use his position in a more positive way. Instead we have the current unedifying position, while the organisations he was connected to can sit back comfortably, having shown how committed they are to women’s careers. On a final note, I’ve seen some on Twitter suggest that Hunt may be on the Autism Spectrum and his ‘jokes’ are evidence of that. I’ve no idea whether the former is the case, but linking ASDs with sexist behaviour is a dangerous path to walk, and one we should steer clear of.
Update: it seems Tim Hunt has some form in this area – although this interview suggests confusion rather than malice http://www.labtimes.org/i50/i_01.lasso
Further update (this is going to drag on for a while): Tim Hunt thanks women for their support and discusses his support for women scientists http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/20/sir-tim-hunt-gratitude-female-scientists-support-joke?CMP=share_btn_tw