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Chauvinism In The Lab

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
June 15, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 24

The past couple of weeks have been packed with media gaffes.

First, we had the careers site of Science magazine pull an advice column suggesting a postdoc tolerate her supervisor’s roving eye. In the “agony aunt”-type article, Alice Huang, a virologist, answered the following query from a student (presumably a woman):

“My adviser is a good scientist, and he seems like a nice guy. Here’s the problem: Whenever we meet in his office, I catch him trying to look down my shirt.”

With the following advice:

“As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can.”

Seriously? Fortunately, the editors of the magazine (and scores of outraged individuals who took to Twitter and other social media) thought the same. The post has now been retracted (it was online for less than 24 hours), and the journal has apologized.

Just as we were recovering from the “Ask Alice” retraction, we were hit with the Tim Hunt debacle. While at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, Hunt, an English biochemist and self-proclaimed chauvinist, admitted to the audience that “girls” should stay out of the laboratory because they distract men. Some of his actual words were as follows:

“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 criticize them, they cry.”

One could argue that’s not the cleverest thing to say in public, let alone when addressing a room full of journalists, let alone at an event organized by senior female scientists. Because they didn’t like it. At all. Now, Sir Richard Timothy Hunt, 72, is no ordinary scientist. He is a fellow of the Royal Society, was knighted by the queen in 2006, and was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell for their discoveries of protein molecules that control the division of cells.

Hunt’s words caused outrage and were immediately criticized by (male and female) scientists on Twitter. Two days after the incident, #TimHunt was still trending. The Royal Society (and other organizations Hunt had a relationship with) quickly distanced itself from his remarks, tweeting: “Tim Hunt’s comments don’t reflect our views.”

A couple of days later, Hunt went on record to apologize, but it didn't sound like a genuine apology. He commented that he meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and the remarks were “intended as a lighthearted, ironic comment” but had been “interpreted deadly seriously by my audience.” And then he dug a deeper hole: “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” he said. “I have fallen in love with people in the lab, and people in the lab have fallen in love with me, and it's very disruptive to the science because it's terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.”

What was he thinking? Despite the commitment by many individuals and organizations to advance women’s careers in the sciences, we still have a working environment in which women earn less than men, receive fewer grants than men, and are promoted less frequently than men. So much effort and hard work have gone on over decades into changing this culture that it is absurd to witness an incident like this, where an individual—an eminent and influential scientist—thinks it’s humorous to talk about “girl trouble” and suggest we work in gender-segregated labs. It's a wonder that so many women stay in the field at all.

But he’s not gotten away with it. I take no delight in this, but as C&EN was going to press, it was announced that Hunt had resigned from his position within the faculty of life sciences at University College London.

Connie St. Louis, who directs the science journalism program at City University London, was attending the conference and was one of the first to tweet, commenting: “Really, does this Nobel laureate think we are still in Victorian times?” Maybe he does. I prefer the 21st century. It's time you moved on, Sir Tim.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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