Nobel laureate’s ‘joke’ cannot be laughed off

July 23, 2015

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

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.

David Dunn

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.

Paul Probyn

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?

John Anderson

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Reader's comments (3)

Professor Bishop you are doing it again. You were part of a small Twitter network (with David Colquhoun and Geraint Rees) lobbying for sanction from Royal Society and UCL. You pushed those two dominoes. Hunt says ERC fired him because UCL did. These 3 organisations show a questionable respect for an Oxford Professor.
Dorothy Bishop original article starts with and argues” Whether in jest or not, sexist language shows an insensitivity to gender issues at odds with academic values”. I disagree with this statement as an audio clip from the Times negates this argument. Tim says “I do hope there is nothing holding you back, especially monsters like me.” This seems to show he is sensitive to gender equality; he doesn’t want women held back. He appears on the side of equality! In comedy as in science there are always exceptions. Sexist language can be appropriate if used in an ironic manner, we are laughing at the flawed character saying these ridiculous words not the target of the jokes. Think of sitcom characters such as David Brent and Alf Garnett. These monstrous creations can get away with saying these prejudiced statements because they are flawed and the humour arises from their awful efforts to extricate themselves from situations or their justifications. In Tim’s case, if the target of the joke was women it would be sexism, but the intended target was himself so surely he shouldn’t be banned from all committees on ill-judged comments? Are we not allowed to have comedy characters making prejudiced comments at all? I agree partly with Prof Bishop that this was an inappropriate meeting to meeting to make these comments. He didn’t size up his audience. When doing irony, it needs to be clear that you are joking and I can imagine that these comments were met with bemusement and possibly anger as it was unclear whether he was serious or not. Until he confirmed he was a monster at the end, the damage had been done for some, especially those who partially reported what he said. Some may have switched off at the end, hence the misunderstanding. This very much resembles the “Donglegate” saga mentioned in Jon Ronsons book on Twitter shaming, in which two guys in the USA were making puerile innuendo jokes about dongles at a meeting. This was overhead by a lady, who took their picture, posted it on twitter and portrayed them as sexists. One of the guys got sacked, there was an abusive social media backlash on the lady and she lost her job. In the Hunt case, a scientist makes well intended but ill-justified and unfunny jokes at meeting of women scientists and journalists. Scientist is parodied on social media as a sexist. UCL pressures scientist to resign from honorary role without due process in a PR exercise. However this backfires as UCL now finds itself in the microscope as journalists point out hypocrisy at UCL as it has hosted male-only clubs for events. The journalist who set the ball rolling in the Hunt saga finds the microscope put on her, with her credentials and CV questioned. Further details emerge that suggest Hunt was joking along with an audio clip. Journalists who reported partial comments branded liars by some who think they should lose their jobs, on the other side some people still think Hunt got what he deserved as he is a sexist. This is a complete overreaction. The worrying implications of this are that any scientists speaking will have to ultra careful in any speeches, formal or informal, not to offend ANYONE. Also anybody calling out a speaker’s comments as offensive will need to be sure what they are reporting is absolutely correct with context and not a misunderstanding as they will face a backlash if wrong or misinterpreting. Could we really be one unwise comment away from internet shaming and losing our positions?
Dorothy Bishop, have you heard the phrase "When in a hole, stop digging"? You continue to make a fool of yourself. If you think, as you say here, "My view is that it is up to the institutions concerned to make that call" then why did you interfere, with your notorious tweet "@profgeraintrees Could we ask that he not be on any appointments or promotions committees, given his views" You are the one who has "shown spectacularly bad judgement" over this issue. I note that one journalist, David Kroll, has modified his opinion in the light of the facts and apologised to Tim Hunt. You should now follow suit.