** UPDATE ** This post was originally published on June 16th before the Daily Mail claimed Connie St Louis falsified her report of Tim Hunt’s controversial comments. Given some twitter interactions on this topic (some of which were engagingly adversarial, others of which were markedly less appealing) I felt that I should update this post to say that yes, I am aware of that Daily Mail piece. Yes, I still believe his comments were inappropriate even if the joke went down well in the room. No, I do not have complete faith in the journalistic standards of the Daily Mail. But I am aware that the landscape of this debate has changed a little. I’m not going to go back and censor my own words, which appear as they did on June 16th, but I am aware that this is an ongoing debate.
Against my better judgement, and the pattern of history, I am going to weigh in on the Tim Hunt debacle (and debacle it surely is).
The furore at his comment that labs should be single-gender because if you work with women “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!” have understandably and completely appropriately drawn the outrage of not just the female scientific community, but also pretty much all of the women in the world who have heard it. It’s just an astonishingly stupid thing for such a clever man to say.
The problem is, I actually felt immensely sorry for Tim Hunt when I heard these comments. To me, it seemed like the ill-formed, glib, socially tone-deaf remark of someone who was fifty years out of date. The sort of person who writes into the newspaper beginning ‘Dear Sirs’, under the assumption of an all-male audience. And I think Tim Hunt was assuming an all-male audience, one who would laughingly and good-naturedly agree with him with a little “women amirite?” nod. As well as being remarkably offensive, the comment was remarkably naive. It assumed that science was still an old boys club, and indeed that the media was as well, and that everyone would fondly agree with him how silly and hormonal women can be. It’s like something my grandfather would say after one too many sherries. My grandfather who once memorably said to me, “I understand women queers, Lavinia, because men have been very bad to women over the years, but just what is it about women that male queers are afraid of?” My father interrupted me before I could proceed to explain that gay men weren’t afraid of women, they just really would rather have had sex with someone with a penis.
And actually that’s another thing about Tim Hunt’s comment. It assumes that a single-gender lab would prevent anyone from falling in love with anyone else ever. Now, I’m no scientist, and I only have a few close friends who are scientists, but working on the assumption that – in the main – scientists are people, too, I am going to go ahead and assume that some scientists are gay. And if falling in love is an impediment to science (which it’s probably not since Marie Curie discovered polonium while working with her husband) then single-gender labs ain’t going to solve that problem, matey. But we’re back again to how Tim Hunt is completely out of touch. He comes from a time when you could assume that everyone was heterosexual because anyone who wasn’t would be too afraid to tell their co-workers.
But now a new voice emerges from the outcry. A voice that says, Tim Hunt has been ‘hung out to try’. Actually, it’s Tim Hunt’s own voice, and a few others have taken up the strain, including everyone’s favourite feminist activist big bonking Boris who pretends to be offering a balanced approach saying “Whether you say it is a function of biology or social expectation, it is a fact that — on the whole — men and women express emotion differently.” I mean… yes, but men still have emotions and express them (albeit differently), and everyone should be allowed a degree of human emotion at work. What has somewhat dulled the edge of my pity for Tim Hunt has been his own attitude to the affair, and his recent comments:
“I am finished,” Hunt told the Guardian. “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic. I have been hung to dry by academic institutes who have not even bothered to ask me for my side of affairs.”
If he had said, “I’m sorry, I understand what I said was deeply wrong and deeply offensive; I fully support women in science and I will now re-evaluate my outdated beliefs and try to come to this with some degree of open-mindedness,” I think I would have fully supported his return to the roles he had been stripped of. But he’s painting himself as the victim here, and he’s not. He’s only a victim of his own words, and his own inability to use his brain/mouth filter.
As far as I am concerned, someone can say something stupid and prejudiced, and as long as they wholeheartedly withdraw it and make a commitment to understanding why people were upset and do something to fix it, then that’s all the punishment they need. It doesn’t hurt to be humble, to admit that you’re wrong. Tim Hunt doesn’t deserve to be hounded out of science, but he did deserve to lose the prestigious positions that he held because implicit in those was that he would be the voice of the scientific community, and he let down one half of that community by showing that he had little support or understanding for women in science. That doesn’t mean that he can never come back, but it should mean that before he does he should think about why people were so upset, rather than thinking about how this was a big injustice for him. We shouldn’t destroy people who say things that are foolish and ill-informed. We should encourage them to re-evaluate. But that doesn’t mean that they still get to be the figureheads of their community.