The response to Tim Hunt’s ‘trouble with girls’ comments went too far. It is one thing to be angry about the comments he made, and he definitely needed to apologize for them, but his being forced to resign, kicked out of various organisations and basically being shunned from the scientific community for the rest of his life seems a bit of an over-reaction. Not an over-reaction to job inequality itself, but to what Tim Hunt actually said himself. Doesn’t it seem a little extreme that someone was fired and his reputation ruined for saying girls cry, something that you’d get a telling off and be made to apologize for in school or the work place? I would say yes, it is very extreme and actually a little unnerving. It has been taken out of context and used to highlight issues that are important, but are not the fault of Tim Hunt.
What he said was insulting. His exact words (as has been quoted everywhere and that will probably now haunt him forever) were: “Three things happen when they are in the lab, you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”
This was a really stupid thing to say. Men and women can work together and not fall in love, and a lot of women are not going to cry if you insult their work (although I did find Boris’s comments on male and female tears quite interesting) . To suggest women cry whenever you criticise them has a lot of sexist connotation to ideas of women being infantile and emotional. Suggesting labs should be segregated is also a stupid thing to say (and not a good thing to imagine). However, it is important to remember at this stage that 1: there is a lot of evidence to suggest he was supportive towards female scientists, 2: He fell in love with a female scientist and may have had her in mind for the first part of his statement, falling in love at work doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and 3: He never said women made bad scientists. He implied that they were emotional, and that men and women may be better suited working separately, but he did not say women could not or should not be scientists.
It is understandable that this spurred frustration. A lot of STEM related jobs are dominated by men. Women are still less likely to be in positions of influence (partly because there are less women in the professions so the stats are going to be lower, but they may also find it harder to be promoted) and some are still insulted and stereotyped by their male co-workers. There are still gaps in pay, pregnancy is still being used as a reason not to further women’s careers, and some men are still misogynists. A lot of this is probably because as there are less women in STEM careers (I saw a figure that said around 15%) there are less women to fight for equal rights and discourage sexist behaviour (not to suggest men won’t also discourage it, or that all men will be sexist as they really won’t). Female equality in the work place has still not been around that long, and its still not perfect. It’s far better than it would’ve been forty years ago, but in some areas it still has a while to go. Attitudes towards women have also greatly improved, but some men still see female co-workers as lesser than male co-workers and will treat them as such. Women can also be sexually harassed by make co-workers, and may feel in danger. All these things are true and should change.
Less girls on average will study certain STEM subjects at A-Level and degree than boys (I remember at my university there were far less girls in the engineering department than boys) and this is partly because we do encourage girls and boys to be good at different things (you will find more girls studying history and english than boys most of the time). We need to encourage children to pursue what they are interested in regardless of their sex, and do more to help girls that are science and engineering pursue their ambitions. We also need unions and points of contact if anyone in the workplace does feel mistreated.
There are also of course wider issues of sexism and unwanted sexual advances in everyday life which I won’t go into now as I wouldn’t say its relevant to the Tim Hunt argument itself, but it is an issue that almost every woman will have experienced at some point (often frequently) in her life, it is disturbing, it is not at all pleasant, it can result in sexual violence and rape and people need to know about it and know that it’s not okay. This article does not address these issues, but don’t think for a second that I don’t take them seriously.
However, we don’t need to use individual men who said stupid things one time as a scape goat for all the injustices that women face in today’s society,. Tim Hunt is an old guy (72) and belongs to a different generation. From what I can gather (as I don’t know the guy) he has a good relationship with his wife, he doesn’t advocate violence towards women (or practice it) and he has supported male and female scientists. Nowhere in his interview did he say women should be murdered, raped, hurt, or that (apart from being emotional) they were any lesser than men, and he didn’t even say women couldn’t or shouldn’t be scientists. I won’t deny that his comments suggest he has stereotypical and outdated views of women, but in light of his age and from what we know of his typical behaviour towards women (that we can know of based on newspaper interviews) he was not an abusive man or a terrible colleague who tormented women in his daily life, in fact it appears he encouraged female scientists and was in favour of women being in the field.
As he has caused a lot of offence he should have been forced to issue a public apology, UCL, The Royal Society and other organizations associated with him should have issued statements along the lines of “nothing Hunt said represents our views, we are committed to diversity” and they may even have used some of the bad press to promote women in science. I understand why they fired him in view of public opinion, but I don’t believe they should have. In the grand scheme of things, he is an old man who said some stupid un PC things (not unlike a lot of our grandparents) and who got told off by his wife for it. If he had suggested that women shouldn’t be scientists than the response would have been more understandable, but he didn’t. It does appear to have been a bad joke that severely backfired and has been read into too much. People are bringing up real issues that need to be taken seriously, they are just blaming the wrong guy for it.
These attitudes may make it harder to work in this field, but I find it extremely hard to believe that someone who really wanted to be a scientist would be put off by some dated remarks like this. To suggest that women are so timid and easily swayed that something this small could put them off a career they wanted to pursue is as insulting as what Hunt said in the first place, in my opinion anyway. His dated views are luckily not the norm any more, but should he be that severely punished for what he said? Hunt is not the reason for unequal employment experiences between men and women, he may remind us of it but he is not responsible for it. You can’t blame this one old man for your own experiences of inequality, and it isn’t fair to suggest he is responsible for or even advocating inequality. Please take a moment to read what he actually said, and feel free to be annoyed at the dated stereotypes, but don’t take it for anything more than it was. There are serious issues here that need to be improved, but these issues are not because of Tim Hunt and it seems unfair and quite cruel to blame him for them.