Science, discussed.

Beyond the Career Gap: The message the Tim Hunt saga is sending to girls

I avoided writing about Tim Hunt. I felt I didn’t have anything new to add to the conversation because there had been so many great pieces outlining why comments like that show the prevalent sexism in science. For example there was a great piece in The Guardian by Hellen Cahill about the unseen women that had helped Tim Hunt along his career.

However, now there are lots of comments about how twitter behave like a “lynch mob” and female professors coming to aid Tim Hunt. There is something that I have to add to conversation and that is what message are we sending to girls with this whole ordeal?

I study kid’s relationship with science. Whether they like it, they value it or feel competent enough to do it. I have been only one year in this project (my first one as a Ph.D student) and my ideas about what can drive ANY person away from science have changed dramatically. I have come to understand that blaming only lack of interest or lack of reasoning skills to the decreasing number of people studying science is a narrow way to look at things. The same way sexism in science is not the only thing to blame. BUT, and here comes the big BUT, there is a big difference between sexism is not the only thing to blame than saying it is not an important thing to solve.

Richard Dawkins came out in Tim Hunt´s defense claiming we over reacted over “ill-advised language”. Eight Nobel Prize scientists defended Tim Hunt claiming twitter “hounded” the poor scientist. And all of this is just sending a terrible message to any girl or young woman that is thinking about pursuing a career in science.

Let’s just unpack three things real quick:

1) Twitter behave like a “lynch mob” – So first of all I love how wording like “witch hunt” and “Lynch mob” is being used to describe when a white man is called onto his sexism and terrible comments while we are struggling to call what happened in Charleston as a terrorist attack, just saying. This is basically sending a message that calling someone’s sexism is not “good behavior” and that you are going to be seen as a “conflictive woman” if you talk about it. So better just “put up with it” *cough* Science Career’s advice *cough*

****UPDATE – Originally the aforementioned point read “Women behave like a lynch mob” several people pointed out that that was misrepresenting the situation because the comment was not gendered because lots of men also complained about this. I do agree with that (my mistake) so I changed it though I think my point on this shows that women feel they can’t raise their complaints still stands. Also I tried to look at the exact quote and on a website I found it was “feminist fanatics lynch mob on twitter” However, I am not sure that is a good source so if anyone can confirm that I would really appreciate it.****

2) Richard Dawkins calling Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks “ill-advised language”. I have already talked here about Dawkin’s sexist remarks. This is changing the conversation from calling something what it is to damage control. Calling it “ill-advised language” makes it sound suddenly as something less grave isn’t it? Like just a mishap or faux pas instead of something nobody should say. Also, Deborah Bloom was with Tim Hunt and was witness about how this one was not just a “joke”. This is just an excuse of course. I have personally suffered sexist remarks in the past from co-workers and after calling them on that everybody always says “oh it was just about don’t take it so seriously. You have a terrible sense of humor”. This creates this stigma that if you can’t take it you are a cold woman without a sense of humor and you are not fun. And who wants to work with someone like that? I mean we don’t want smart women co-workers we just want that unidimensional girl that is friend with all the boys and laid back and laughs at all their jokes. So if you are not that kind of girl better not work on science, because you are not “tough enough” to take it.

3) Finally, the eight Nobel Prize scientists defending Tim Hunt. There are 6 cateogries in the Nobel Prize. As of 2014, the ceremony had taken place about 113 times, that makes 678 minus 50 awards that had not been awarded in some years for different reasons. So of the total 628 awarded Nobel Prizes ONLY 47 have been awarded to women. But the Nobel Prize is still seen as the IT people and the ultimate goal to all scientists. Not only young women and girls now know that it is extremely difficult to be a woman and earn it (that sends the message that we are not good enough) it also now sends the message that this IT people and ROLE MODEL scientists share Tim Hunt’s ideas.

So as you can see no matter how much you are fascinated by science or how competent you feel you are, there are many things that can discourage you from studying science. Because, even with a 4.0 GPA women will still feel that no matter how smart they are they are not welcomed in this old boy’s club.

– Paulette


9 comments on “Beyond the Career Gap: The message the Tim Hunt saga is sending to girls

  1. JB

    I don’t think the phrase ‘witch hunt’ or ‘lynch mob’ was used in a gender specific fashion given many of the most vocal critics of Hunt were men, on Twitter at least, but without analysing the data that is an anecdotal assumption.

    My problem with the Hunt affair is that while his comments were wrong, and he should have resigned his post(s) given his apology (which amounted to a re-iteration), I don’t believe science exists in isolation from the rest of society. It is only fairly recently, the last decade at least, anecdotally, that assertiveness from women/girls has even begun to be viewed as assertiveness rather than being a ‘bitch’. In antediluvian places and with antediluvian people that attitude still exists. That attitude, among many other existent problems in broader society, are far more prevalent than can be addressed by what amounted to a moral outrage on Twitter about a risible comment from someone who wasn’t a household name. Maybe it sent out ‘the right message’ but I’d be interested to know how that can be quantified or disentangled from broader societal changes that led to the moral outrage. That is hopeful, regardless.

    A less hopeful thought; in my experience people willing to express their sexist views in public to potentially hostile audiences are outnumbered by those who think, and act, in far more sexist and deleterious ways while keeping mouths shut about it when not in ‘safe’ company. It is possible to be smart, deceptive and hold sexist and/or aberrant opinions. ‘Common sense’ is often wrong. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

    I agree with Dawkins to the extent that I don’t believe Hunt or the risible views he expressed were directly responsible for problems of sexism in science. It simply wasn’t and isn’t proportionate to broader society. Science is not hermetically sealed. The Hunt affair was like pointing at varicella and saying that’s to blame for chicken-pox. Tim Hunt is a complex organism and reducing him to erroneous (IMHO risible) statements seems to lack complexity and nuance.

    • pvincentruz

      First of all thank you for your comments! I agree with you that Tim Hunt is not only the comments he did and the situation is more complex that this single situation. That is why I wanted to focus this post more on the overall message that this is sending rather than on him personally. Like you said this happened to be made in an open way but there are tons of researchers in the sciences that are not open about their sexism except in safe situations and because we don’t know it is happening we cannot do something about it.

      I totally agree science sexism is a reflection of the prevalent sexism in society, if we don’t start changing these ideas in the broader sense there is no hope for women nor in science not anywhere. The example of women called “bitch” when assertive is great. But also I think this whole thing about “they cry” it is referring to this emotional side of women that it is considered bad in the workplace. Women doing “Male” things in the workplace is starting to be accepted but we still have a long way to go in accepting that a woman not acting like a man in business or science can still do a great job and get good results and be a leader. So under this paradigm “female behaviors” need to be changed in order to be accepted and that is also wrong. But again this is part of a broader change in society. Also, yes in the last years there has been some positive and hopeful changes and though we have a long way to go we are taking steps on the right direction.

      I could get the comments could be seen as risible. But when I read his comments I pictured a room full of the typical white male academic with just a few females and most of the room laughing and the women feeling uncomfortable and that is where my mind change gears about how problematic these comments were. In the end, one can make a joke that can be funny for some but still can offend others. And I believe it is valid to say sorry my joke offended you I didn’t mean it to be hurtful and try to understand why that is offending the other party. But this whole attitude of it was a joke and if women can take it they shouldn’t try to be scientists reflects a lack of empathy of the situations that go beyond this type of comments that women like me had faced on their science careers. Regarding the joke part, however, in the dinner he commented on his table that he was not joking and that he truly believed what he said. So it is hard right? Because he may have been a great mentor to lots of women in his tenure and how do we disentangle that from this comment that he admitted was how he saw in reality the sitaution.

      • JB

        Thanks for the, good, reply. Lots to think about.

  2. @p_gl

    Thank you Paulette for this post about a difficult topic as sexism.
    You’ve covered the implications Tim Hunt’s comment and other scientists’ reactions have on future generations of scientists, and I couldn’t agree more. Why would girls want to become ‘weak women’ in a world dominated by men? And which culture will young men be exposed to when they join the scientific community?
    Of course these are huge generalisation, and I actually do not believe there is much danger in this sense for the bulk of scientists. But this is where the problem lies. In science. as in most other disciplines, a small elite has the largest global influence that is achieved (at least in science) largely by merit and commitment to the cause. When scientists reach the highest levels in the profession (a Nobel Prize being the most symbolic achievement), they are looked up to and trusted. Also, in a less prosaic but far more practical aspect, they will sit in committees and managing boards, and have the largest net of connections.
    So it really annoys me when even a very small minority of this elite:
    1. says it doesn’t matter that sexism is still widespread among the most influential people in the profession
    2. complains about being silenced by the social media community…by writing about in on the front page of some of the most influential online and print newspapers.

    The point was never about freedom of speech, quite the opposite: if one sexist comment generates such a strong defence mechanism, how general is the male dominance behind closed doors?

    • Thanks ! Yes, such backlash means there must be a huge sentiment against women in science behind closed doors. And this mechanism is not only keeping women away but also men that belong to minorities. It is not about all Nobel Prize being awarded to women or all tenure positions but it is about a fair fighting chance. 🙂

  3. Sudipta Tripathi

    Hi Paulette,
    Thank you so much for putting into words so precisely the working environment for a woman in science or for that matter in any other profession or in society.

  4. Genevieve Bart

    Well anybody can say stupid things, and say them publicly, politician who are more experienced do it all the time (or some of them slip more than others). Truth is they cannot be ignored and Tim Hunt or others like Larry Summers have to live with the consequences, they usually amount to be a laughing stock, targeted by social network, hounded by the press for a few days and then its over. Our society is full of prejudice and, at times, it is trying to get rid of them or at least silence them. With the existence of old values which were mainstream only a few decades ago and very much alive today what are we expecting? It is difficult for a woman to be elected president, in this regards we should note what Hunt did not say, he did not like working with women but not because they are stupid which shows some progress over Larry Summers. His words would have raised a different reaction if the prejudice was not very much felt. The question is, do we want to improve society (not just for women but also for children not born to the elites)? or do we just want it to look better and not to rock the boat? Do we mind that campaigns to attract women to science turn out to be just as sexist? As a final word I would say that raising kids should be a 2 people job and that nobody should be chained to their job day and night (its not even good for the job), we should aim for a more equal, ethnically and culturally diverse society, so prejudice against women is a big problem but when we direct awareness campaign to specific ethnic groups we forget that we are full of other prejudices we should be ashamed of.

    • pvincentruz

      Genevieve thanks so much for your comment ! We are full of prejudices. I find myself at times making comments or having thoughts that perpetuate the things I am trying to change. We are all flawed! And yes Tim Hunt’s remark caused such an uproar not because of him but because a lot of women felt this joke represented a lot of the experiences they had before. I like your point, and totally missed on the whole conversation, about this is not only about what he said but looking inside us and see how we can each improve to make this situation better not only this one but any prejudice.

  5. Ben_Chaffey

    Tim Hunt’s comments were appalling and anachronistic – frankly, as are those from other ‘esteemed’ members of the scientific community who have sought to defend him. I hope their generation will be the last to fail to deal with these aspects of the human condition in a mature and professional manner. Their are two sexes in our species, both are good, both are capable, both are valuable and both are necessary!

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This entry was posted on 21/06/2015 by in news, Science and Society and tagged , , , , .


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