The trouble with jokes about girls

Whether in jest or not, sexist language shows an insensitivity to gender issues at odds with academic values, argues Dorothy Bishop

July 16, 2015
Elly Walton illustration (16 July 2015)
Source: Elly Walton

Academic life on social media has developed a surprising resemblance to an Anthony Trollope novel over the past few weeks. People who usually get along fine and hold similar views find themselves sharply divided on an issue they feel passionately about. The source of all this division: the fate of Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, whose comments on the “trouble with girls” at a meeting of female scientists in South Korea generated uproar, culminating in his resignation from an honorary post at University College London, from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee and from the European Research Council.

There are many aspects to this story, but I want here to focus on just one of them: whether construing a sexist comment as a joke changes how we evaluate it. I am not so much concerned with the specifics of this case but rather by a more general issue: the division between those, like me, who think that the “joke” status of a disparaging comment is irrelevant, and those who think that whether someone is joking or not is a game-changer.

Many people I respect hold the latter view, and their argument goes something like this. We are all capable of saying something stupid and insensitive, but if a stupid comment was intended as a joke, then we should be tolerant and not make a big deal about it. Furthermore (and here the issue becomes of much broader significance), if someone suffers repercussions for a mere joke, this is a threat to free speech. Many of us working in higher education are concerned at trends to muzzle those who might say something off-message – either because what they say is offensive to a particular group, or because they are being critical of their own institution. If we are not careful, we could end up with an academy where we are not allowed to tell jokes, to express disagreement with others’ religious views, or, indeed, to mock the policies of our institutions, as Laurie Taylor does so effectively every week in Times Higher Education. I’ve even heard it argued that we are on a slippery slope: one minute it is Hunt being pressured to resign from an honorary role, the next it is Charlie Hebdo journalists being killed because their cartoons are deemed offensive.

My view is that we have to consider the balance between the rights of the individual on the one hand and the consequences for society and our academic institutions on the other. At one extreme, the individual is free to say anything, provided it is in jest; at the other, a university could sanction a staff member for causing offence of any kind. I regard neither extreme as acceptable.

Personally, I think we should be allowed to criticise the policies of our institutions and to debate robustly with those whose beliefs are at odds with our basic values. However, when we are talking about the fundamental biological characteristics of the individual, it is a different matter.

If we say derogatory comments are acceptable in the context of a joke, this basically allows anything, because anything can be construed as a joke post hoc. Suppose someone said: “Let me tell you about my trouble with blacks. Three things happen when they’re in the lab: (stereotype 1), (stereotype 2), (stereotype 3).” I think most educated people would regard this as unacceptable, even if the speaker subsequently argues that they were being ironic. However, substitute “girls” for “blacks” and for many people it becomes OK. The classic response if a woman calls out sexist language is to be told: “You can’t take a joke” – firmly placing the blame on the complainant’s inadequate sense of humour. I recommend a blogpost by Hilda Bastian, an academic editor for Plos Medicine, which draws on academic work on “disparagement humour” (ie, jokes that denigrate, belittle or malign an individual or social group to reinforce existing prejudice). In “ ‘Just’ Joking? Sexist Talk in Science”, Bastian notes that disparaging comments do not need to be made with malice in order to be sexist, and it does not follow that those who make such comments are bad people. But the use of negative stereotypes of women gives others licence to treat sexism as normative, especially when it is a high-status person making the remarks.

I also think that academic institutions have the right to dissociate themselves from someone who brings them into disrepute by using racist or sexist language. Gender equality is very much on the agenda of academic institutions and funding bodies. Many universities with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) departments have seriously engaged with the Athena SWAN initiatives to address gender inequality in the workplace; the Royal Society and the European Research Council have come under fire for the low success rates of female grant applicants, and both organisations have taken this criticism seriously and are examining ways to ensure their processes are transparent and fair. Having a high-profile figure make a sexist joke in a public forum undermines such initiatives, and places the organisations in a difficult position whereby they either appear to condone sexism or risk being attacked for political correctness. Sexist language, however jokey, shows an insensitivity to gender issues that is at odds with the core values of most academic institutions. Calling this out is an indication of a commitment to women’s right to fair treatment and not a threat to academic freedom.

Dorothy Bishop is professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford.


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Reader's comments (19)

Often, people who are highly expert in one field can be complete idiots in another. Thus it was with Hunt. What he attempted as a humorous quip was a stupid thing to do and it is his idiocy that should be criticised, not his work and positions in the scientific field. He is entitled to make any remarks he likes within the law but he must also be prepared for criticism if he embarks upon making comments outside his own area of expertise. I am guessing he was probably ill at ease when confronted by a room full of science journalists and he thought he was being clever in passing an "ice-breaker" remark. Clearly, he was completely wrong. I think he should have been allowed to retain his positions but he should have been firmly told by his superiors to keep all future comments to areas he knows something about and not to speculate on the feelings, motivations and emotions of others - which he clearly knows little or nothing about.
"If we say derogatory comments are acceptable in the context of a joke, this basically allows anything, because anything can be construed as a joke post hoc. " What an utter straw man. Who cares? We should start by assuming that most humans, educated or otherwise, are perfectly capable of understanding context, especially if they witness something first hand. Even if not the better with more information. Some of us can even manage to withhold judgment when the information is poor. However we know this author didn't. On June 9th, barely a day after the news broke, Dorothy Bishop tweeted this to the Dean of the UCL: "Could we ask that he not be on any appointments or promotions committees, given his views." Ms Bishop leaves out above the further context that other witnesses have come forward in the meantime and that Tim Hunt's words were far more clearly seen in the context of a joke at the time. This article is yet another in a long history of articles that try to justify the idea that if one person claims offence by some words then those words are taboo without requiring further intellectual consideration of context. As always in this long desired attempted philosophical claim, when trying to bring tangible exampes to the idea it falls apart. If Hunt made three stereotypes about blacks how far would the debate have come do you think? I'm an ill educated person, but even I can see that he would not got far. But in the intervening month I now know Tim Hunt met his wife in the lab and have read the many woman who have worked with him and have come forward to praise him and say they never once detected sexism in him in person. No one has yet. So to any fellow uneducated people out there I think when knowing all this it is obvious that when you see that 'stereotype 1' in its actual form was "you fall in love with them", I think you may yourself see the speciousness of Ms Bishop self serving article above. Maybe in short I should have left this to words of a woman who actually heard his full speech and knew its context ;) Moscow science journalist Natalia Demina June 10th: "Everybody who heard T.Hunt's speech yesterday understood that he was joking. For those who not: guys, there is u sense of humour? #wcsj2015"
Thanks for the responses. JD says, despite the backfiring joke, he thinks 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, Hunt put the Royal Society, UCL and ERC in a difficult position. It is noteworthy that all three of them took action to dissociate themselves from Hunt - 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 Hunt 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 outside world to have confidence in their decisions. Hunt disqualified himself from such a role by his very public comments. The tweet of mine that LS noted expressed this view. It's harder to respond to LS's overall comment because he seems to miss the point of the article and is fixated, as so many commentators 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 this was a speech given at a meeting of women scientists, with journalists present. In my judgement that's a singularly inappropriate context in which to make a sexist comment, joke or otherwise. LS has also dug out a tweet by someone who thought it was an OK joke, and presented a biased account of the stereotypes listed by Hunt, mentioning only the first, and then compounding the problem by implying that women scientists should be happy if their PI 'falls in love with' them. The types of argument that LS puts forward have been endlessly promoted by some of the press over the past few weeks, but they miss the central point. Hunt 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.
Come, come Professor Bishop, you are being disingenuous in your response to JD. "Hunt put the Royal Society, UCL and ERC in a difficult position. It is noteworthy that all three of them took action to dissociate themselves from Hunt - and as far as I am aware, these were quite independent decisions." You were part of a small Twitter network responding rapidly to a partial account of Hunt's remarks Tweeted by Connie St Louis, and a false account of their reception i.e. stony silence. Many others present at that lunch have since contradicted St Louis's version. In this network were David Colquhoun, emeritus member of staff at UCL and member of the Royal Society Diversity Committee and Geraint Rees, Dean of Life Sciences at UCL, who asked for Hunt's resignation from UCL. So you were involved in pushing these two dominoes. The ERC initially supported Hunt, but Hunt states in his only comment on the matter in the Observer that the ERC then fired him because UCL had done so.
"Sexist language, however jokey, shows an insensitivity to gender issues that is at odds with the core values of most academic institutions. Calling this out is an indication of a commitment to women’s right to fair treatment and not a threat to academic freedom" I think the context of the comments should have been mentioned by Dr Bishop in her article. Many comedy characters are funny because of their prejudices and flaws, we are laughing at them and not the people they are targeting. From what I gather Tim Hunt on the spur of the moment (as a toast, not a prepared speech) tried to paint himself as a out of touch chauvinist. Accounts of the meeting mention he mentioned later that on a serious note what women scientists were doing in South Korea was fantastic despite chauvinists like him. Surely this suggests he is on the side of gender equality, that he was acting in a self deprecating manner and that suggesting he should be omitted from any boards or committees is an over-reaction. His comments may be not be funny and but his comment about women scientists in Korea suggests he is sensitive to gender issues. His comments would have been sexist if the target of the joke was women but it appears the butt of the joke was him and his trouble with women. I think a ironic joke from about blacks could be potentially funny if the presenter was the butt of the jokes. For example I'm a Scot. If an Englishman said "This is my trouble with Scots. They drink too much ethanol in the lab, they are thrifty with budgets and their drunkenness makes them aggressive if you criticise them. Now seriously I think the contribution of Scots to science is great despite xenophobes like me. " I would find this amusing as Scots can relate to these stereotypes rather than feel belittled and maligned. The joke is on the speaker and his mock prejudices not Scots. That's the trouble with jokes. There needs to be context and understanding. Without this there can be misinterpretation and over-reaction. Sexism, racism and homophobia should called out, but which this comes responsibility to consider the intentions and big picture.
Dorothy, we hear so much about race and gender issues, but so little about disability. Despite this, which of the three is most likely to generate real disadvantage?
As Harry Black says, according to some, he was making a self-deprecating joke about sexism, not a sexist joke. Would that be grounds for dismissal, under the ruling of Dorothy Bishop's joke police? Most people agree that Hunt showed very bad judgement. That isn't the issue. This blog post appears to be an attempt to duck the real issue which is the unfair treatment of Tim Hunt - the unprofessional rush to judgement by UCL and a small number of academics, including Dorothy Bishop herself, as pointed out by Henrietta Lacks above. It is ironic that Dorothy Bishop writes here that organisations "are examining ways to ensure their processes are transparent and fair." Was UCL's firing of Tim Hunt "transparent and fair"? Were Dorothy Bishop's remarks fair? Here is a reminder of some of her tweets on June 9th: "Not sure it's enough. In 5 min or so Hunt has undermined all RS is trying to do on diversity. Need statement from Nurse" "@girlinterruptin on Tim Hunt, says it all, except she's just annoyed. I'm incandescent" "He'll keep FRS but shld be banned from committees" There was also an offensive remark posted on McLain's blog implying that Hunt was not a "decent human being." These were apparently based only on that one tweet from CSL. By the way, we now have that statement from Nurse that you said was needed. Here it is: "Sir Tim Hunt remains a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in my view should not have been removed from his position as Honorary Professor at UCL". The time has come, Dorothy, to admit that your response was an inappropriate over-reaction. Intolerant, authoritarian offense-seeking could be more damaging to science than an misjudged attempt at a joke.
Dorothy Bishop is being disingenuous. The available evidence suggest that she and David Colquhoun initiated a campaign against Hunt simply on the basis of a tweet from Connie St Louis, a 'journalist" with a questionable pedigree. St Louis certainly produced many programmes for R4 and later became a presenter for others. See BBC Genome Project. Yet it remains unclear what she actually did (as with many PIs whose names appear on all papers from their lab). Her BBC record appears to stop in 2007 and the paper record since then is exceedingly thin. Further, her claims to have written for the Daily Mail and the Independent have been challenged and not successfully rebutted. Still more damaging, her claim to a B. Sc. in Applied Biology has not been verified. This would immediately raise flags in any scientist's CV. Journalists are held to a different standard, apparently. And then, her CV starts in about 1990 when she was already 33! What was she doing before that? The record is silent. Consider this: If CSL had made a sensation science claim via twitter--such as cure for cancer--neither DB nor DC would have given it a moment's thought without checking it's provenance. Then, without further evidence, they would have dismissed it. Evidence is of course different in science and journalism. These two have no expertise--no clue really--in identifying good journalism from bad. Yet they believed her anyway because, I suggest, she told them what they wanted to hear.
Having indicted both DB and DC of rush to judgement, it would seem fair to also shine the spotlight on the admin at UCL. UCL, in the person of Geraint Rees, seem to have made the crucial decision to fire Hunt. The charge here is that UCL has never come clean about what--if anything--transpired between it and Hunt's wife, the distinguished UCL immunologist Mary Collins. Here is what she told the Observer (13 June 2015): “I was told by a senior [now assumed to be Rees or his agent] that Tim had to resign immediately or be sacked – though I was told it would be treated as a low-key affair. Tim duly emailed his resignation when he got home." Several points arise. The first is that given the time-line UCL appear to have been acting on no more information than DB/DC. Twitter! The second is that UCL should not have asked one of its most distinguished woman scientists to pass on this information to her spouse. Imagine the outcry if it had happened in reverse--" Call up her husband and tell her to resign or be fired!" Most important, UCL has never admitted nor denied Mary Collins account. This appears dishonest. Spin. Certainly lacking in clarity. Further, when the Council met to ratify the decision, it was announced they had inspected emails. And phone calls? The naivety is astonishing! If that is what it is... A final point. Nature--which scientists interrogate--may be difficult to understand but it is not deliberately duplicitous. People, institutions, sometimes are. I entirely endorse Dorothy Bishop's and David Colquhoun's desire to have talented women scientists appropriately represented in science. But still more highly I value honesty and transparency. This piece by Prof Bishop about jokes is at best an irrelevance. What we need to know is what went on. I look forward to her telling us.
Sir Tim Hunt has been completely vindicated, His story was one the main items on the BBC news, and repeated over and over in the press, ensuring that the hysteria reached critical levels. Now that he has been vindicated a complete retraction with apology is in order - instead we get silence so far.
The Sir Tim Hunt affair has unearthed a spineless and opportunistic administration and media in UK academia. So far the only person to lose his position is Tim Hunt however.
It is difficult to judge Sir Tim Hunt's comments without either a sound knowledge of the actual speech and its context or, indeed the man himself. To have formed any sensible view immediately following the initial report would have been impossible. Consequently I make no judgement about Sir Tim Hunt or his remarks. I do feel able to comment on Professor Bishop's remarks however. Whether or not she has a point is mute but I am absolutely sure that she was wrong to run to judgement in the way that she did. Someone who behaves in such a way is unlikely to be suitable to have influence over the lives and careers of others. In the context of her post this would make her unfit to examine or have influence over selection of candidates for admission, posts or promotions
Nobody comes out of this looking very good. A sexist comment by a Nobel Laurate, followed by a trial by Twitter initiated by an Oxford professor, ending in a knee-jerk reaction by UCL. Looks like not all is well in UK science. I just wonder what the legal position on this - how would an employment tribunal deal with this case, had Hunt been on full-time appointment. It is clear that Hunt was out of line. But why did Dorothy Bishop feel the need to put pressure on UCL (e.g. saying "Could we ask that he not be on any appointments or promotions committees, given his views") and Royal Society rather than let these institutions appropriate carry out their disciplinary procedures? This does not sound like behavior worthy of an Oxford professor from whom the public has the right to expect fair and respect towards processes that are in place to deal with these instances. Due to her actions, these processes, which are in place to ensure that decisions are fair, balanced, and accountable, could not take place. Not appropriate behavior from an an Oxford professor? The readers' comments have been a revelation;
If after a lifetime of representing Important British Institutions at international conferences a man still doesn’t know better that to make such comments, no wonder there are so few women in science. Did any of the respondents read and take on board what Professor Bishop wrote? - swap who you are ‘joking’ about with another group and her arguments are terrifyingly cogent. Society is so immersed in this gender stereotyping that it is hard to unpick and hard even for some women to pin-point what it is - though they certainly still feel it and many feel undermined by it. Awareness please, we don’t all believe in the ‘stop being so sensitive’ line - it is so old school. I understand that after the debacle Tim Hunt invited UCL reps to meet him at the Garrick Club!
As a male academic, I think DB is right on the money here. Tim Hunt's so-called joke suggests either a) a serious lack of judgment, and/or b) a stereotyped and sexist view of women. Either of these are incompatible with being on any committee allocating research funds or making any kinds of management decisions. This is not about being politically correct but about how we decide who to put into a position of influence and responsibility, and equally importantly about signalling acceptable attitudes towards other groups. As DB states succinctly, you only need to replace "women" by <Jews, Muslims, blacks, gays...> to see just how indefensible his remarks were. The fact that TH is a Nobel laureate means nothing - the example of James Watson demonstrating that this does not make you immune to disturbing and appalling views. The dismissal of TH was completely justified, and though I suspect the actions of UCL were driven largely by the fear of bad press, it is important that a clear message is sent that sexism is no more acceptable than racism in academia or society as a whole. There is of course the risk that the end result is that those with racist and sexist views will simply keep their opinions to themselves, rather than genuinely confronting their prejudices. But even so, it will be progress, because the more we make prejudiced remarks, even couched in joke form, unacceptable, the more attitudes of society as a whole will change over time.
J L and June clearly have not read my comments in which I have replaced women with another minority (Scots) to show these comments can be defensible if the joke is not the person saying the comments not the group. Are sitcom writers who create characters who are misogynistic, racist and homophobic deemed sexist, racist or anti-gay because their characters say terrible things? If anything the writers are the opposite because the characters get what they deserve in the end and they may challenge viewers own prejudices. I originally thought his comments were unacceptable until the full picture emerged, especially as an audio clip emerged of him saying he hoped women weren't held back despite monsters like him. J L comments " the more we make prejudiced remarks, even couched in joke form, unacceptable, the more attitudes of society as a whole will change over time". Surely if the if the intention of the prejudiced remarks is to make the character look ridiculous or a 'monster, that is a great satirical way to make prejudices look ridiculous. We would be missing a great tool to challenge unfairness. I'm worried that when speaking to students or scientists we will have to ultra careful of using humour in case we are misunderstood and lose our positions. Tim did show a serious lack judgement and should stick to doing science and leave comedy to the professionals. I remember Andy Murray being taunted by an English journalist who asked if he would support Scotland in the World Cup, teasing him about Scotland not qualifying. Andy jokingly replied he would support anyone but England in response to beating and there was a huge backlash calling him anti-English. Now Andy gives the usual inoffensive PR trained monotone script in interviews along with most bland media trained sportsman. Our scientists may be going the same way.
Dr. Bishop should correct herself on a number of points. Sir Tim was not asked to resign by the ERC whose President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon has, on the record, defended both Sir Tim's speech on the day, and his record of fighting for gender balance at the ERC. The ERC itself does not determine who sits on the council. That decision is made by the EU. As he told me any questions on Sir Tim's forced resignation need to be directed at them not the ERC. Second, Dr. Bishop asserts on no firm evidence that Sir Tim made a sexist joke. Witnesses say he did not; that his joke was not only not sexist in its intent, but not sexist in its substance. For example, it was wrongly reported that in jest he had suggested sex-segregated labs. According to a female science editor from Malaysia present, Sir Tim did not do so. He said "men would be the worse off for it" if labs were segregated. So even in jest he did not suggest this. No amount of academic gloss will obscure the fact that, before Sir Tim appeared on the Today show, which spliced and distorted his words and misquoted, misreported, and mischaracterized (as I shall shortly report), she had posted on a blog declaring on the basis of a mere tweet that "his views" were serious and should disqualify him from policy positions. By definition, as Sir Tim had not then spoken, this view of Dr. Bishop's was evidence-free. Regrettably, and in reference to Sir Tim, Dr. Bishop stated that to be an FRS there was, and I quote, "No requirement you be a decent human being". I am ashamed that Professor Bishop is from Oxford. When I was an undergraduate we were required to present evidence in any essay before offering a conclusion. Professor Bishop skipped that tiresome requirement in judging her peer. Now she shifts ground to "so what if he was joking - sexist jokes aren't okay." But she has no idea what form of words Sir Tim used. She cannot assert his joke was sexist. I have produced audio on my blog . Amongst other things it proves that a) Ms. St Louis's reporting that "nobody laughed" was, charitably, flat wrong; and it further proves that neither Ms. St. Louis's tweet nor even the EU observer's report has wording that can be relied on. "Congratulations, everybody" appears in neither account. That Sir Tim made a sexist joke is therefore mere assertion. Nothing reliable supports it. It is time to stop smearing Sir Tim unless you have reliable evidence on which to base it. Dr. Bishop did not have that evidence when she began her campaign against Sir Tim based on a tweet on 9th June. She does not have it today.
I believe that June Raby, in her comments above, perpetrates a definitive example of the subconscious confirmation bias characteristic of the Tim Hunt affair: " I understand that after the debacle Tim Hunt invited UCL reps to meet him at the Garrick Club!" According to what I read in the popular press, UCL has, in fact, being using the Garrick Club as a venue. On the other hand, I have not read anywhere that Tim Hunt has been associated in any way with this practice (although he may be, I have no evidence either way.) A google search for 'Tim Hunt Garrick Club' appears to confirm my suspicion. Sordid affair. The people I hold most culpable are not the generally ignorant and emotional public (including myself), but the representatives of scientific method, namely David Calquhoun, Dorothy Bishop and the other UCL members responsible for demanding TH's resignation based on emotionally-charged hearsay.
I must say I agree with William Coales when he says "It is difficult to judge Sir Tim Hunt's comments without either a sound knowledge of the actual speech and its context or, indeed the man himself." There is always the problem of different interpretations of what someone actually said. For example, it seems to me there is a great deal of difference between "“Let me tell you about the trouble with girls" and "“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls" , which I believe is what the prof actually said. If it was the latter, and if he was genuinely making an attempt at humorous self-deprecation, i.e., at poking fun at himself when he was a young scientist, then the remark was not really sexist at all and the consequences quite severe. I say this as someone who got in a lot of hot water recently for making a remark that was completely misinterpreted by an administrator..