English biochemist Tim Hunt speaks during a session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions at Dalian international conference center on September 12, 2013 in Dalian, China.
English biochemist Tim Hunt speaks during a session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions at Dalian international conference center on September 12, 2013 in Dalian, China.  ChinaFotoPress—Getty Images

Calling Tim Hunt Sexist Won't Help Women in Science

Jun 16, 2015
Ideas
Athene Donald is a professor of physics at the University of Cambridge.

Since Sir Tim Hunt made a few off-the-cuff remarks at a lunch in South Korea last week, there has been an increased focus on the lot of women in science. Yes, there are problems for women in science—problems that are well-documented, with often obvious solutions. Yet we don't seem to be making much progress.

Hunt's comments about women working in research have been interpreted as proving he is a deep-rooted misogynist whose subsequent downfall is no more than he deserved. He has been quoted as saying, “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 has since resigned from his position at University College London.

What worries me about the public backlash to his comments is the failure to test that hypothesis of misogyny. His remarks are indubitably offensive and totally inappropriate, even if he meant them as a (badly misjudged) attempt at humor. But as has since become clear, what he said about "girls" falling in love referred to his own life. His most recent apology sounds heartfelt enough to satisfy.

Yet the media storm has simply analyzed the remarks at face value and not looked at the totality of his lifetime contributions and the evidence of how he has treated women over five decades of research activity. There still seems to be a lack of hard evidence of long-term sexism in his behavior. On the contrary, from my own knowledge—I have sat with him on several committees—he has actively championed women for appointments and promotions and offered support where he could. He has expended much of his life since winning the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work on cell cycle regulation in traveling the world to enthuse young scientists, men and women, something he will likely no longer be able to do.

The cause of women in science is dear to my heart, and despite arguments that his remarks are damaging, I remain unconvinced that this cultural challenge is well-served by destroying a man's reputation for three crass sentences. His resignation from his honorary position at University College London was made with such rapidity that it's hard to imagine any thorough investigation had been made. His departure from the European Research Council Scientific Council, a committee on which I have served with him, followed swiftly after. (The Scientific Council itself was not party to that decision.)

My plea is that we now move on from attempting to analyze this ghastly episode. Maybe my view is colored because I know and admire Sir Tim for his lifetime contributions to science and his work inspiring future generations. My generation may be more forgiving of him than some of my younger colleagues because I knew people of my father’s and grandfather’s generations who said sexist things yet who could still accept that times were changing and go on to encourage the girls in their family to follow their dreams.

It's too late to save Hunt's reputation. But it's not too late to use the energy gained in this debate to renew efforts to root out the ills that make life difficult for women in science. We can ensure that families and schools do not deter young girls who love science and math from pursuing careers in those fields. We can ask Google to make its image gallery of professors showcase women in their top 10 images—a suggestion that came via Twitter in response to the list of #just1action4WIS I put on my personal blog. We can choose a range of toys that do not stereotype children by gender, demand that the media represent women in the workplace fairly and without sexual objectification, and ensure that women who appear to be being disadvantaged are supported. That way, the future for women in science may genuinely be better.

Life Before Equal Pay Day: Portrait of a Working Mother in the 1950s

Jennie Magrill with her family in the background.
Jennie Magill with her family in the background.Grey Villet—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Jennie Magrill with her family in the background.
Working mother Jennie Magill shopping with her children at the super market.
Jennie and Jim Magill in the kitchen.
Jennie Magill and family in the kitchen.
Wifely kiss is Jim's reward for helping with the dishes.
Jennie Magill at work.
Companionable lunch with the girls from store is lots better, says Jennie, than a sandwich in solitude at home. "Through Jennie's friends at work," says Jim, "I've met a lot of people I wouldn't have met otherwise."
Her work is a source of pride to Jim. "She' has done a terrific job. And when i tell her about my work she doesn't brush it off."
Going home, Jim always picks Jennie up at Carson Pirie Scott branch. The ride home is a chance to talk without domestic distractions.
Jennie and Jim Magill coming home from work.
Taking over the family reins when she gets home, Jennie holds Jackie, 2, who tests cake which he "helped" housekeeper Sophia Flewelling (left) to bake. Sophie runs household smoothly while parents are gone.
Jennie Magill and family.
Jennie Magill ironing with her daughter.
Jennie Magill with her children.
Jennie Magill comforting her crying daughter.
Jennie Magill with her children.
Jennie Magill reading a story to her children.
Bill-paying is disagreeable, but it reminds them of how well they live because Jennie works. "It's nice not to have that lost feeling," says Jim. "Now when we see a piece of furniture we want, we buy it."
Jennie Magill kisses her children goodbye.
Jennie Magill with her family in the background.
Grey Villet—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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