Hung Out To Dry – Or Hoist By His Own Petard?

There’s been a disturbance in the Force recently over remarks made by Sir Tim Hunt at a luncheon organised by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations. He stood up and said:

“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 criticise them, they cry.”

Adding that he was in favour of single-sex labs, but allowing that he didn’t want to “stand in the way of women”.

Hunt was clearly unprepared for the wave of negative reactions that followed, saying that while what he said was wrong, the price he and his wife have had to pay for his mistakes has been extreme and unfair. “I have been hung out to dry,” says Hunt. He has resigned from his position as Honorary Professor with the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences.

And just as night follows day, the wave of negative reactions has been followed by a wave of support from fellow scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox. However, I can’t help but feel that Dawkins, in particular, is certainly not helping with statements such as

“ the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.”

There’s none so blind as those who will not see, professor Dawkins. At least Sir Tim has recognised the enormity of his gaffe. As his hosts pointed out in a letter:

“As women scientists we were deeply shocked and saddened by these remarks, but we are comforted by the widespread angered response from international social and news media: we are not alone in seeing these comments as sexist and damaging to science. Although Dr. Hunt is a senior and highly accomplished scientist in his field who has closely collaborated with Korean scientists in the past, his comments have caused great concern and regret in Korea.”

They also noted that although Hunt belatedly called his remarks an attempt at humour, he had earlier defended them as “trying to be honest.” His remarks, the letter said, 

“show that old prejudices are still well embedded in science cultures. On behalf of Korean female scientists, and all Koreans, we wish to express our great disappointment that these remarks were made at the event hosted by KOFWST. This unfortunate incident must not be portrayed as a private story told as a joke”.

Sir Tim has written to them regretting his “stupid and ill-judged remarks.” He added:

“I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologize to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us.”

As is said in the article in which this exchange of letters is quoted:

The real point is our failure, so far, to make science a truly inclusive profession. The real point is that that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door. The real point is that to pry that door open means change. And change is hard, uncomfortable, and necessary.

What we certainly don’t need is other old, white, male scientists telling us that this is a “baying witch-hunt”.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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