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Women in Leadership: Sexism in science

Rhian Morgan

Nobel Prize-winner Sir Tim Hunt has lived to regret his sexist words, almost immediately resigning from his position as honorary professor at University College London. Ironically in so doing, says Rhian Morgan, he is behaving just the way he believes the silly little “girls” in his lab would

Who hasn’t expressed disbelief around the water cooler when they heard Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt had told the World Conference of Science Journalists: “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.”

And yet, when there was an understandable furore over his words, he was the one who (emotionally) quit his job, presumably as he was unable to take the pressure (and the embarrassment).

Twitter has been abuzz with the hashtag #distractinglysexy, with extremely amusing photos of women (not girls) in their labs. Some of the funniest ones include a photo of Marie Curie with the Tweet “I’m really glad that Curie managed to take a break from crying to discover radium and polonium”.

In another, a woman sports a gas mask in her lab, Tweeting: “Filter mask protects me from hazardous chemicals and muffles my woman cries. Double win!”

While my favourite is a photo of a scientist with some large goggles on, captioned by: “My lenses bring all the profs to the yard,” in a parody of the Kelis song Milkshake.

One presumes a Nobel Prize-winner would have more sense than to be overtly sexist before a group of international journalists, in the twilight of his career. Now he has resigned as well, will he be more infamous than renowned? Now, whenever anyone writes his biog, or even his obituary, this incident is sure to be mentioned and will follow him around like a bad smell.

I do feel certain sympathy for him. He’s 72, used to a world where his kind dominated science, and used to having his own way due to the respect accorded to a Nobel Prize-winner. He probably made what he thought were highly amusing near-the-knuckle jokes to his colleagues, who just grinned and bore it, thinking they did not want to rock the boat with such an eminent force in their industry. Or maybe they excused him due to his age, even dismissed him. We all know the type.

Maybe he misinterpreted a colleague’s interest, mistaking awe for passion, leading to him to be overly zealous in his criticism. Or maybe a colleague did once fall for him and broke his heart, making him embittered. Or maybe he knew one woman who was emotional, upset at his criticism, who was after all only human and acting like many people, male and female, act in the workplace? Whatever his experience, his words are telling, ironically painting him as a man unable to control his desires and professionalism, and maybe revealing him to be a bully in the process.

I can certainly see why he has quit. After all, instead of seeing amorous glances from all the female scientists who were supposedly infatuated with him, he would now see hidden sniggers and, even worse, pity. And while his comments were unprofessional, some of what trolls have been saying on article threads have been unbelievably insulting.

Yet ironically if, instead of crying off his career, he withstood the storm, this would all be practically forgotten in a month. He could get on with his no-doubt important work. His legacy could have gone on undiminished and practically untarnished.

However, he would now find out what it’s like to feel dismissed and suffer professional disrespect. He would feel the frustration of knowing he was brilliant, with a lot to offer, and yet have to put up with sneers from his peers. He would have to work twice as hard to re-establish his reputation, and watch what he said and did around women in the future.

Which is rather ironic, and how I bet many female scientists have felt in their careers. In an early blog, I wrote about a book from two top business psychologists entitled The Invention of Difference: The Story of Gender Bias. In it, they said how both men and women believe erroneous statements that are embedded in culture, such as that women are more emotional than their rational male counterparts.

Says co-author Jo Kandola: “There is overwhelming evidence that there are no genuine differences between the genders in the context of work but perpetuating the ideas of differences means women continue to be held back in their careers. Challenging bias is everybody’s responsibility.”
Maybe humour is just a brilliant way to diffuse and expose bias in all areas in the workplace. Maybe, if Sir Tim had taken a deep breath, owned a sense of humour, and held his head high, he would also not have felt the need to take the rash decision of resignation. Instead, his legacy has been cheapened. For whom the Nobel tolls, one could say.

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