Tuesday 16 June 2015

The first rule of Tim Hunt is…

I see a lot of people at the moment saying we should stop talking about the Tim Hunt affair and focus on the Real Issues facing women in science. As though condescending arseholes at the top of the profession aren't one of those issues.

Even Brian Cox is doing it. Lucky I don’t idolise anyone or my illusions might just be shattered.

All of you saying we should move on, or that the response to Hunt was “disproportionate” (if I never hear that word again it will be too soon) need to take a good hard look.

Many of us will only “move on” from Tim Hunt as soon as there is a serious recognition that Hunt’s remarks at the WCSJ were serious and damaging enough to warrant the sanctions that have been applied. Spare me the world’s smallest violin, but a white male professor FRS Nobel Laureate having an unremunerated honorary position taken away together with a couple of positions of influence on the ERC and Royal Society does not an excommunication make. I don’t want to hear any more self-pitying bullshit about him being “hung out to dry” or “removed from society”.

I haven’t said much about the Tim Hunt affair. To be honest I’ve been busy listening to the reactions from others, particularly women in science. And as a privileged white male professor at a leading UK university I honestly don’t feel that my opinion counts for much. But I do have one, and for what it’s worth here it is:

1 – Hunt’s comments were unacceptable and stupid. He has yet to offer a full apology, which just shows how little recognition he has of sexism in science. Oh but he's old, right, so that's ok? Fuck that. My dad is the same age as Hunt, has one less Nobel prize, grew up in 1950s Australia (AKA Betty Crocker Central) and could teach him a thing or two about equality.

2 – the prompted resignations from UCL, Royal Society, and the ERC were appropriate. Some have criticised them for being too quick. Bullshit. They were fast because the case was clear. They did the right thing and I applaud them.

3 – there has been no witch hunt, no lynch mob, no burnings or beheadings. Just people, including lots of women scientists, expressing their displeasure with Tim Hunt’s comments on social media. And often with great humour.

4 – I am deeply disappointed by some of the defences of Hunt emerging from various Establishment figures, publicly and in private. A lot of these defences are being expressed behind the scenes and consist of “He’s a nice guy; he has no media training and was lost at sea; I’ve never seen any evidence of him behaving in a sexist manner so everything is fine”. Many of these people are sending these messages in the hope that the recipients will use their influence to defend him on their behalf. Stop it. If you want to defend Tim Hunt, at least have the spine to do it yourself.

5 – To those calling for more evidence of wrongdoing before "condemning" Hunt, just stop. The comments are evidence enough that he is not fit to hold ambassadorial roles in science. Being a great scientist does not justify being a purveyor of 1950s sexism.

6 – Those telling us to move on or pay attention to something else would do well to examine the privilege of their own vantage point. Why exactly do you want to move this debate on so quickly? And here's some fun Bingo to play while you’re at it.

7 – We are all sexist. I know I am because I was raised in 1980s Melbourne surrounded by gender stereotypes and it is an ongoing battle combatting these in work and life. Avoiding benevolent sexism is particularly challenging. I will be working hard to teach my 9-month old son to fight these stereotypes as he grows up, rather than accept them as I did.

8 – Fuck off, Boris Johnson. You tedious populist fart. There, that was easy.

9 – Athene Donald has published a fantastic list of actions we can all take to further the cause of women in science. My only proviso is that she predicates it all on a very shaky defense of Hunt, who is clearly her friend. But the list is excellent and I’ve reproduced it below without the unnecessary "Hunt is a really nice guy" baggage:

  • Call out bad behaviour whenever and wherever you see it – in committees or in the street. Don’t leave women to be victimised;

  • Encourage women to dare, to take risks;

  • Act as a sponsor or mentor (if you are just setting out there will still always be people younger than you, including school children, for whom you can act);

  • Don’t let team members get away with demeaning behaviour, objectifying women or acting to exclude anyone;

  • Seek out and remove microinequities wherever you spot them;

  • Refuse to serve on single sex panels or at conferences without an appropriate level of female invited speakers;

  • Consider the imagery in your department and ensure it represents a diverse group of individuals;

  • Consider the daily working environment to see if anything inappropriate is lurking. If so, do something about it.

  • Demand/require mandatory unconscious bias training, in particular for appointment and promotion panels;

  • Call out teachers who tell girls they can’t/shouldn’t do maths, physics etc;

  • Don’t let the bold (male or female) monopolise the conversation in the classroom or the apparatus in the laboratory, at the expense of the timid (female or male);

  • Ask schools about their progression rates for girls into the traditionally male subjects at A level (or indeed, the traditionally female subjects for boys);

  • Nominate women for prizes, fellowships etc;

  • Tap women on the shoulder to encourage them to apply for opportunities they otherwise would be unaware of or feel they were not qualified for;

  • Move the dialogue on from part-time working equates to ‘isn’t serious’ to part-time working means balancing different demands;

  • Recognize the importance of family (and even love) for men and women;

  • Be prepared to be a visible role model;

  • Gather evidence, data and anecdote, to provide ammunition for management to change;

  • Listen and act if a woman starts hinting there are problems, don’t be dismissive because it makes you uncomfortable;

  • Think broadly when asked to make suggestions of names for any position or role.



  1. Thanks for this piece. I concur.

  2. As a woman scientist, I think your opinion on this issue is spot on. Thank you for sharing it! Thank you also for sharing the light-hearted responses. I especially appreciate the Bingo card. I think I may need to suggest to Ms. Bishop that she add "It was just a joke" to her card. I was told just today that (my PhD in quantum theory notwithstanding) "If you can't handle a joke, you don't deserve a career in the sciences." ? !

  3. Ann Kittenplan16 June 2015 at 21:53

    "Hunt’s comments were unacceptable and stupid." Why?

    "He has yet to offer a full apology, which just shows how little recognition he has of sexism in science." Alternatively it shows he doesn't think he's done anything wrong and (although the language is grandiose) he's prepared to stand by what he said. Grandiose because afaict what he said was nothing more than an aside. It's not like it was some grand conception.

    etc etc etc

    This whole piece seems to just *unquestioningly* adopt the Angry Mob position and run with it.

  4. Tim Hunt was invited to give that talk and he responded by insulting his hosts. Do we just "take the joke" if someone wastes themselves on our living room carpets by saying, "Oh, he's old" or whatever? NO. He was rude, sexist, and insulting to his hosts and hostesses. Period. If his apologists want to encourage rude, boorish, sexist behavior, they can have it at their places and meetings. The rest of us are tired of it.

  5. YES. It's been so noticeable that he's been defended by people who are generally old and male and privileged. And the real point is that had he genuinely understood the depth of the problem, he wouldn't have been able, even in a moment of bad judgement, to think that what he said could be taken as a "joke". His words just show how unaware he is of how bad the problem is in practice, and how seriously we need to deal with the gap in perception and reality. Unconscious bias training for him would only be the start.

  6. I'm genuinely curious if people who think the response to Hunt's comments was appropriate would feel the same way if he had said the following:

    "I think mixed-gender labs create dynamics (with people falling in love with each other) that distract from the science and think it would be better to have single sex labs for that reason. I also find it difficult to give negative feedback to women, because they are more likely to react with crying and that makes me very uncomfortable."

    Obviously that is a sanitised version of what he said, but I'm curious if supporters of UCL's decision to kick him out would think that the above statement should have resulted in sanctions.

  7. Thanks for writing this. I am a woman in science and will absolutely not speak up publicly because I don't need every sexist dolt in the world getting in touch with me - look at social media exchanges for women who spoke up on this. Sir Tim Hunt made it clear before that fawning Guardian interview that while he'd meant for the remarks to be ironic, he was trying "to be honest". In a previous Lab Times interview now circulating he explains he does not understand why women underrepresentation in science is a problem, and so on and so on. At some point, things stop being jokes and become obvious positions you hold. Is it problematic for someone with such influence to hold such positions in 2015 ? Yes. Enough is enough.

  8. I'm a woman scientist and I say stupid things all the time. I have terrible social skills. I'm grateful to those who don't hold it against me.

    1. If you apologise, immediately and sincerely, when you say stupid things, I doubt anyone will hold it against you. If Tim Hunt had done that, we wouldn't still be talking about it.

  9. As a woman scientist I appreciate this post. I'm a bit worried that the general dismissal of of Hunt's comments as ridiculous is polarizing the divide between those who see the sexism and those who think women are in denial of human nature, and demand to be coddled, or something I'm not sure I really follow. Here's the thing--I believe Hunt is "just telling the truth" in that people often end up in relationships when they spend a lot of time in the same place and share a specific interest. Also, women are probably more statistically likely to cry when critiqued. I also think that men are statistically more likely to punch a wall after a critique, but maybe that's extrapolating a bit too much from my personal experience.
    The real problem is that these things may have changed a bit since Hunt started in the business, and the changes make him uncomfortable. And rather than come up with practical, managerial ways to deal with this discomfort (or, for pete's sake, universities provide managerial and teaching/mentor training to research scientists) he thinks of it as a funny joke.
    Attractions happen, it's probably best to have some policies so that nobody ends up directly and solely supervising/in control of their love interest's research. Most people, particularly young people in their first years of grad school, respond poorly to direct criticism and evaluation of their work--it's something you have to get used to. In my experience, the most common noob (of either gender) response to direct and constructive criticism is obfuscation--pretending to understand the protocols and intricacies of the experiment being run, spouting off random irrelevant but slightly related facts, while not really understanding the core of the criticism. The whole thing is a learning process for both the advised and the advisor, and while crying also makes me uncomfortable, but doesn't make me think that truly important details/flaws aren't being understood. It's generally a sign the advice was more of an understood dialog that a typical yes, yes, okay, gotcha type is.

  10. Just to be clear, it's OK to make cliched generalised comments about white men being privileged but wrong to make cliched generalised comments about women having a tendency to cry, yes?

  11. "1 – Hunt’s comments were unacceptable and stupid."

    I have to wonder why you are not denouncing HR departments then, for making thee same comments about workplace romances. Or is it impossible to criticise them because they are female run and you are but a lowly male?

  12. Why do you all take it as a given that there *is* a problem with how women are treated in science? This is an empirical proposition. What is the evidence for this?

    The mere fact that women are rare in some fields is hardly evidence of anything. Before making unwarranted inferences please read about the wealth of evidence that the low numbers of women entering many scientific fields reflects patterns of gender difference in interests (e.g., desire to work with people not things) which exist around the globe and begin very early? The case is very well reviewed by Ceci et al., 2009.

    As for mistreatment, a recent randomized study of hiring preferences in STEM suggests a 2:1 bias in FAVOR of hiring women in US academia (Williams and Ceci 2015) . So what is your justification for acting like the problem is discrimination against women rather than discrimination in favor of them?

    The writer of this blog ably criticizes evidence-free social science claims in most settings--but he seems to be giving it a pass when it comes with a feminist wrapping.

    Ceci, S. J., Williams, W. M., & Barnett, S. M. (2009). Women's underrepresentation in science: sociocultural and biological considerations. Psychological bulletin, 135(2), 218.

    Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2015). National hiring experiments reveal 2: 1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(17), 5360-5365.

    1. This controversy is about a man representing a scientific institution standing in front of a crowd of women at a science-related event and making jokes that recycled old, insulting stereotypes about women... and then crying when he had to face consequences for it. That's a problem in and of itself. And it's not hard to find other examples of prominent scientists (both men and women) making similar insulting statements/jokes about women or other groups.

      It's simplistic to frame the issues around women in science as mere hiring discrimination (although that still exists in some places), it's also about women and other historically-excluded groups (e.g. people of colour) feeling comfortable at work and not having to deal with their bosses or colleagues making sexist (or racist, etc.) jokes.

      In most fields, if you stand in front of a group of people at a work-related event and insult them with sexist or racist comments, what happens? Do you think your boss would particularly care about your side of the story, or the fact that you're not REALLY sexist/racist? Hunt did something so incredibly stupid that it would get anyone fired, then refused to offer a real apology like a normal person trying to salvage the situation, instead crying to the media about being treated sooo unfairly. So yeah, I'm not feeling much sympathy. If a member of his lab acted like he did, insulted an audience with genuinely offensive jokes, and tarnished his reputation in a very public way, I'm pretty sure he'd turf the person out. But I guess he feels his years of hard work and reputation somehow make him immune to consequences?

  13. Thank you, I agree with every point. Kudos to Brian Cox for posting this blog, even though his own response was wrong. I was very disappointed that he was defending Tim Hunt, let alone that in the four-minute interview he managed to cover a dozen inappropriate Reactions to the Inappropriate Dude Behavior Bingo. I hope we'll get the apology from Tim Hunt, and a reconsidered opinion from Brian Cox, who is apparently empathizing with Hunt's self-pity. Real Issues facing women in science are condescending arseholes at the top of the profession and condescending arseholes not at the top of the profession, but the former influence funding and hiring more. Cheers

  14. I am really unsure about where the human race is headed when it comes to internet outrage. It's so easy to have a public opinion these days, and its even easier to become offended by them. OK, so I'm a white male, and I don't work in science, so what do I know. However I am disabled, and I worry when people treat us as a group that is a group of delicate flowers, that need to be coddled and nurtured. I'm not delicate. People should learn to move on from comments like these, and treat them with the lack of attention they deserve, not stand on a soapbox, wafting oxygen onto them.

    Lets face it, seriously intelligent people often have poor social skills. If we're not careful, we will end up with a bunch of faceless homogenised public figures, with no personality of their own. Something similar is happening in UK politics at the moment.

  15. I call out this blog as part of Chris Chamber's research in cognitive neuroscience.
    I'm sure you don't believe this twaddle about Hunt's personal reminiscencing, and this is part of research into how the internet can be made to manipulate peoples thinking using group-think.

    1. Hahahahaha.

      No. Last time I checked my name wasn't John Bohannon.

  16. I am a women scientist, in a math/physics/computation field dominated by men. The worst sexists against women I noticed are those who are kind/gallant to women only if these women appear as intellectually inferior, and they are otherwise (if the women appear smarter or career-wise competitive to him) nasty to women in a very sexist way --- these men typically do not marry a strong women scientist like Tim Hunt did.

  17. Thank you for bringing some sanity to this debate. I have seen and experienced far too many incidents of sexist/discriminatory behaviour during my 20+ years in academic labs to find Tim Hunt's comments funny, or to feel sorry for him. Often the perpetrators (including men and women, young and old, sometimes with high flying partners) are all too happy to pay lip service to the advancement of women in science, but in private they do not support women in their own labs, especially if they dare to reproduce, when they then become an 'inconvenience' and are seen as (to use Tim Hunt's words) 'disruptive to the science'.

  18. This crazy and will bring nothing good to women.

    Actually, this lynch mob confirmed just what he sad. When you criticize them, they cry (on twitter).

    Many professors will now think twice before they work with women, Because a woman can destroy 30-40 year of your work with just one sentence. No man can do it to you.

  19. You wrote this on Tuesday. Do you still stand by your words on the lynch mob issue? And before you answer, let me suggest you spend five minutes googling the history of Lynch law origins and purpose. See also several articles on publish shaming, and the utter destruction of peoples lives after the sort of mistake that pretty much every human being has made in one form or another.

    The #distractinglysexy response was briliant. The response should've stopped there, but it didn't. Past female colleagues of his have stepped forward to clearly state that this comment was not representative of his attitudes. Do we really punish failed irony with career-ending humiliation? At least with tar and feathers you could go to the next town.