11 Jun 2015

Sir Tim Hunt comments: just a little bit sexist?

I take absolutely no delight in the resignation of Sir Tim Hunt from his role as an honorary professor at the University College London. Twitter is at its worst when it becomes a mob.

English biochemist, the Nobel-prize winn
But Sir Tim hasn’t quit because a baying mob demanded it. He’s quit because a university which was the first to admit women students on equal terms to men couldn’t stomach the sexism of his remarks about “girls” in the lab.

To recap, he told a conference in South Korea: “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.”

He apologised for what he said was a joke, but for an extremely clever man (who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of protein molecules which control the division of cells) he clearly has some trouble understanding just what all the fuss was about.

Instead of retracting his words in their entirety, Sir Tim implied he was simply sorry he was caught. It was, he said, “a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists”.

And having admitted in all seriousness being a “chauvinist pig”, he went on to defend some of his remarks. “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” he said.

Oh dear. At a stroke, all those female scientists from Marie Curie down, who have over the decades slaved at the Bunsen burner in what sadly remains a man’s world, find themselves having to work just that little bit harder to get taken seriously. And no wonder girls at school still see science professions as jobs for the boys.

If someone as eminent as Sir Tim had made a joke about race, he’d have been shown the door, no questions asked. But somehow it’s still OK to be a little bit sexist.

And all those women (myself included) taking selfies of themselves waving tampons and displaying armpit hair in the name of equality are, as the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine put it this morning, “touchy ‘feminazi’ with the sense of humour of a Ryvita”.

Guilty as charged, but feminists do have a sense of humour when the joke is actually funny.

So no, Sir Tim hasn’t been hounded out, and his unfortunate bout of “honesty” doesn’t detract from his reputation as an eminent and important scientist. But he should keep his “girl trouble” to himself in future, to send a message that sexism is just as unacceptable as racism.

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