10 Jun 2015

Nobel scientist Tim Hunt criticised for chauvinist remarks

“Science needs women,” says the Royal Society, after the widely-criticised pronouncements of Nobel prize-winning biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, who advocated single-sex labs to avoid “trouble with girls”.

Scientist Tim Hunt (Getty)

Speaking during the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea, Sir Tim was reported to have admitted to having a reputation as a male chauvinist, but continued: “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.”

He apparently added: “I’m in favour of single-sex labs”, but then insisted he did not “want to stand in the way of women”.

A senior female scientist, who wished to remain anonymous as she is on the board of several scientific societies, told Channel 4 News that the comments had left her speechless: “What I found most offensive is that he’s not even putting us in the capacity of being scientists – he’s calling us ‘girls’.

“It’s so awful because the people it will affect the most are teenagers and women scientists in their 20s.”

Bias against women

Professor Dorothy Bishop of Oxford University said that although Sir Tim was apparently not “the kind of puffed up self-important alpha male that one often finds in the corridors of scientific power” he should be barred from “any committee that makes decisions about fellowships, appointments, promotions, policy, etc.”

Fellow scientists had confirmed that he is a “nice guy”, she said, but “he clearly has a view of women that just makes him inappropriate in these roles.”

His comments, she said “get at the heart of bias against women in science: the notion that we can’t be serious contenders because we are too emotional, and, even worse, we distract the men from their science by our sexual allure.”

Sir Tim’s remarks, which were apparently greeted with a “deathly silence”, provoked outrage on social media, prompting him to tell BBC Radio 4: “I’m really, really sorry I caused any offence, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest actually.”

‘Science needs women’

The country’s most eminent science body, the Royal Society, moved swiftly to distance itself from Sir Tim’s comments, tweeting: “Science needs women.” Sir Tim was elected a life fellow of the Royal Society in 1991.

Too many talented individuals do not fulfil their scientific potential because of issues such as gender Royal Society

In a statement on its website, the society said: “in order to achieve everything that it can, science needs to make best use of the research capabilities of the entire population.

“Too many talented individuals do not fulfil their scientific potential because of issues such as gender and the society is committed to helping to put this right.”

Tears of frustration?

Dr Kate Devlin, lecturer in computing at Goldsmiths, University of London, told Channel 4 News “Tim Hunt’s views may be outdated and they may be reframed as ‘banter’, but that doesn’t stop them being sexist. In fact, it highlights very clearly the way in which women in STEM subjects have to fight so much harder for recognition.”

Dr Devlin added “I suspect Tim Hunt should think about other reasons that women might be crying in his lab. They’re probably tears of frustration.”

In the wake of the controversy, an invitation to Sir Tim to take part in an online seminar on the subject of persevering in science was withdrawn by the organisers.

‘I’m not sure there is really a problem’

The latest comments from Sir Tim do not come out of the blue.

In 2014 Lab Times published an interview in which he was asked why women are still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies.

He replied: “I’m not sure there is really a problem actually. People just look at the statistics… I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are.

He went on “One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior popsitions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious to me that .. is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.”