A little over a week ago, Sir Tim Hunt, a 72-year-old Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, made the following remark at a public talk in Korea:

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.

So, Mr. Hunt made some comments that were sexist, insensitive, and potentially hurtful. (He has since apologized.)

What he did not do was sacrifice a kitten to Beelzebub whilst reciting Mein Kampf, which is what you might think, based on the general reaction:

  • According to Hunt and his wife, University College London (UCL) told Hunt less than twenty-four hours later that he must resign or be fired from his position as Honorary Professor. He resigned. (Admittedly, UCL’s official statement tells a different story, claiming they received his resignation before they were able to contact him for discussion.)
  • Hunt also resigned from the European Research Council (ERC), also – evidently – under pressure.
  • He has been widely pilloried in the news. CNN began their story with the words: “It’s safe to say few tears have been shed by women in science over the resignation of Nobel-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt after his now infamous comments regarding his experience of ‘girls’ in laboratories.”
  • Hunt’s comments, as well as the man himself, have been the target of the #distractinglysexy Twitter campaign, in which (mostly) female scientists post mocking and sarcastic comments and pictures to demonstrate that they are not distracting to their male colleagues. (To be fair, the comments are – for the most part – lighthearted rather than malicious.)
  • At the moment, it appears that Hunt’s career has been effectively ruined.

Look, I get it. Sexism in math and science is a big issue, and comments like his are a potential setback to the progress toward equality that has been earned only with great effort and at great cost. He shouldn’t have said it. Nobody – least of all Hunt himself – is arguing that point.

But there is such a thing as proportional response. You correct the error publicly, you make sure it won’t happen again, and you move on. You don’t tarnish a lifetime of accomplishment because of a brief, well-meaning but ill-conceived joke.

Physicist Athene Donald, who knew Hunt personally – and who has devoted enormous energy to promoting gender equality in science – wrote a wonderfully sane and insightful response. She says, in part:

I was naturally appalled by his remarks, but I think it is worth asking what damage they have caused and whether the response actually helps the situation…My impression is firmly of a man who genuinely supports people, whatever their gender, background or specific interests.

Now, perhaps we can get on to the issues that really matter. Like Donald Trump’s campaign.

6 responses to “Backlash

  1. get the hell off the intewebs, you logical and compassionate being. There’s no place for you here.

  2. Donald Trump’s campaign is certainly very important lol And yes, what Mr. Hunt said was wrong, but he realized that and apologized and I think the actions taken against him went too far.

  3. Large institutions react to these sorts of things based on self-preservation. The scale of the actual offense doesn’t matter (there doesn’t even have to be an actual offense — though I agree that there was one here) — the question is whether the insitution is embarrassed.

    So, for example, Ray Rice beats his fiance into unconsciousness and gets a short suspension. Then people learn about it, the organization gets embarrassed, and he gets fired — for the same action that earlier only “deserved” a short suspension. Don Imus made an offensive/”humorous” comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, and he gets fired, though his comment was not in any way unusual for his show. The station didn’t mind his comment — they minded the embassassment when the thing “went viral.” This also applies to Rachel Dolezal, if there was pressure on her to quit, since by all acccounts she was really good at her job.

    Now, obviously these situations are all very different, but the institutions involved don’t care about that.

    Frankly, Sir Hunt should have used it as a “teachable moment” about science, since he made a very unscientific statement, based on no research, with no evidence, using unscientific terminology, and he got challenged by his peers. That’s how the proccess is supposed to work, as I understand it.

    • I agree about how institutions react to things like this. I’m curious what really happened in this case, since (as I mentioned) UCL claims that Hunt offered his resignation to them first.

      To be fair to Hunt, he did say he was describing “my trouble with girls,” meaning that the statements that followed were explicitly anecdotal, and therefore not meant to be scientific. I think what he said was probably even true, in a literal sense – that is, I suppose that all the things he described did in fact happen to him. But I think the implication was there (that his experiences described “girls” in science more generally), whether intentional or not, and that’s the problem.

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