Thanks for the online responses to my article about sexist language (“Comic fig leaf”, Opinion, 16 July).
One commentator says that, despite the backfiring joke, he thinks that Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt should have been allowed to keep his positions: this is a view shared by many. My view is that it is up to the institutions concerned to make that call: by his comments, Sir Tim put the Royal Society, University College London and the European Research Council in a difficult position. It is noteworthy that all three took action to dissociate themselves from him – and as far as I am aware, these were quite independent decisions. The types of “position” varied: an honorary fellowship with no workload is rather different from membership of a committee that makes decisions about allocation of funds and/or honours. I cannot see any justification for arguing that Sir Tim should have remained on decision-making committees. An organisation can pick who it wants for committees, and if it has any sense will select people who show good judgement, including sensitivity to gender and racial issues, if they want the world to have confidence in their decisions. Sir Tim disqualified himself from such a role by his public comments.
One commentator seems to miss the point of the article and is fixated, as so many are, on establishing that “it was a joke” and therefore anyone who objected to it failed to understand context and lacked a sense of humour. If we look at the context, we see that this was a speech at a meeting of female scientists, with journalists present. In my judgement that’s a singularly inappropriate context in which to make a sexist comment, joke or otherwise. The same commentator has also dug out a tweet by someone who thought that it was an OK joke, and presented a biased account of the stereotypes listed by Sir Tim, mentioning only the first, and then compounding the problem by implying that female scientists should be happy if their principal investigator “falls in love with” them.
Sir Tim can say whatever he likes; he’s done nothing illegal. He has, however, shown spectacularly bad judgement, not just in the original comments but in his subsequent statements. He clearly doesn’t “get it” with regard to gender equality and any organisation that cares about this issue is not going to want him to represent them.
Dorothy Bishop’s article is just a sophisticated rendition of the argument that the lives of real people are subordinate to the sending of the right message. Bishop says that it is more important to analyse the impact of sexist jokes on science. To achieve this, she wonders what our reaction to a racist joke would be. Sir Tim did not make a racist joke. He did not even make a sexist joke. He made a joke about himself. And UCL ruined his reputation for it. The rest is sophistry.
Irrespective of whether Sir Tim meant his remarks about girls as a joke (and a feeble one at that, if reported accurately), as Bishop says “the use of negative stereotypes of women gives others licence to treat sexism as normative”. In the same issue of Times Higher Education, you report on the persistence of gender pay gaps; a clear indication, if any were needed, that women are still not taken seriously enough.
Nobody comes out of this looking very good. A sexist comment by a Nobel laureate, followed by a trial by Twitter [...], ending in a knee-jerk reaction by UCL. Looks like not all is well in UK science. It is clear that Sir Tim was out of line. But why did Bishop feel the need to put pressure on UCL (eg, saying [in a tweet] “Could we ask that he not be on any appointments or promotions committees, given his views”) and the Royal Society rather than let these institutions carry out their disciplinary procedures?