Little did I think, when I heard on BBC’s Today programme that eminent biologist Tim Hunt made some colourful remarks in Korea that it would unleash a furore in the media, the Internet, and around the coffee machine. Much of the discussion revolves around several questions: Was he joking or being honest? If correct (or even if not) was he being sexist? Does it matter?
What seems clear to me is that sexism or racism or other forms of discrimination are often expressed not by cardboard villains and chauvinistic pigs screaming expletives, but by normal, usually friendly people, who often justify their behaviour as being honest, or jocular, and this is how they actually perceive it, they are actually nice people – unconscious bias is often expressed in such ways, and only acknowledged (at that) if brought to task.
And in this case, it seems very important to bring him to task, without necessarily labelling Sir Hunt as Sexist.
We usually tend to look at successful people and try to learn from them. We have columns written by successful people who swear by the Pomodore Technique – we go ahead and download the App and try to use it. We read that so-and-so, CEO of a successful startup, starts the day with an early morning jog and black coffee at 5am, we diligently put the alarm for an ungodly time and try it out for some (alas too few) days. And so we have a Nobel-prize winning scientist saying he has problems with women in his lab – so what do we do? If I were a tenure-track academic, with my first grant but with dreams of getting a gong in Stockholm, or even just surviving as an academic, I would follow the implicit advice and if possible get my lab full of trouble-free men. What would you do?
One aspect which I feel hasn’t really been discussed at all is how Sir Hunt expressed our very typical andro-centric view of the world. From the narrative, he was in a room full of women, talking about women (or in his words girls) and yet his turn of phrase is “you fall in love with them” – so even faced with a room full of women, he talks as if he is talking to a guy (you the scientist) about them – those women out there. There is that unconscious bias for you. de Beauvoir talked about this in her book Second Sex, but not much has changed in the many decades since, and we often still assume scientists are hes.
But there are women in the audience – not only those in Korea, but now, women like me, or the young PhD student down the corridor preparing for her Viva, or the post-doc on the floor below applying for jobs, who listen to the radio and read the Web. And what is the effect of his “facts” on us? The notion that even a nice, intelligent, normal, science-hero father-of-two-girls senior member of our community thinks that women are cry-babies, trouble to have to work with is not particularly helpful in establishing confidence, or to help us decide to stay in a generally tough academic life. Why discourage women to enter science – when they may make the big discovery of 2020, or 2030?