Row over Nobel prizewinner’s ‘ill-judged’ remarks

Sir Tim Hunt’s comments about ‘girls’ in science provoke online storm

June 18, 2015
Businessman with foot in mouth

Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks about the “trouble” he has experienced with “girls” in science prompted a storm of criticism online. Speaking in South Korea at an event for science journalists, he said he favoured single-sex laboratories and is reported to have added that three things happen when “girls” are in the lab: “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry”.

He later apologised for the comments, and has resigned from positions including honorary professor at UCL’s life sciences faculty. He said he intended the remarks to be humorous and did not mean to cause offence. But a post on the Girl, Interrupting blog – written by Sylvia McLain, university research lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Oxford – described the sour taste the remarks had left.

“I am annoyed that a well known, acclaimed scientist thinks it is somehow rational to stand up in public and say ridiculous things like that,” she says in the post, adding that his comments sent out the message to women and other minority groups in science that they were not welcome.

She writes in the blog post: “It is not some cranky failed academic saying this, it is a Nobel Prize winner and Fellow of the Royal Society…When someone this prominent in the scientific community says this – others are left thinking – ‘well who else thinks that?’ and ‘am I really not welcome?’

“If I am going to cry for anything, it will be for the fact that one flippant statement made by a fool might make 51% of the population feel unwelcome in a profession which should be open to all.”

In her The Culture of Chemistry blog, Michelle Francl-Donnay, professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, cites work by Shelley Correll, professor of sociology at Stanford University, which shows how men overconfidently assess their own ability in science and maths. “[It] makes me wonder if when Tim Hunt criticizes a boy’s ideas, the boy discounts the criticism because he is overconfident,” she says.

Many academics chose Twitter to vent their spleen over the comments, causing “#TimHunt” to trend on the social media platform. Leila Whitworth (@LeilaWhitworth), assistant registrar for research at Oxford’s Medical Sciences Division, pondered how Sir Tim’s wife, Mary Collins, professor of immunology at University College London, felt about the comments. Deirdre Heenan (@deirdreheenan), pro vice-chancellor for communication at Ulster University, said that Sir Tim might have the answer as to why “83% of full time Professors in STEM are male”. Andrew Maynard (@2020science), professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, tweeted that the most worrying thing was that Sir Tim “speaks what many think”, which is “absolutely” and “dangerously wrong”.

Meanwhile, Zoé Vincent-Mistiaen (@zoeivmist), a PhD student at the Francis Crick Institute, said she had “stopped crying long enough” to post a “#distractinglysexy” picture of herself at work in an animal onesie. And Ben Sheldon (@Ben_Sheldon_EGI), Luc Hoffmann professor and director of the Edward Grey Institute, said he was working from home so that the “girls” in his lab did not have to fall in love with him.

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Article originally published as: THE Scholarly Web (18 June 2015)

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Reader's comments (1)

To my mind, by far the most interesting online discussion of these issues is taking place on Athene Donald's blog:


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