tim hunt resignation was not too far
I have sympathy for Tim Hunt.
First, the public shaming, and now, according to an interview in the Observer, being “hung out to dry” by scientific establishments. I agree that this situation would be horrendous for anyone, and that these comments may have very well been a nervous error, a miscommunication or a human mistake. I do, however, consider these repercussions warranted. If not, they would be encouraging an environment where gender comments are perpetuated and sexual inequality continues to exist without ramification.
The comments that landed him in the public spotlight were made in South Korea, at the World Conference for Science Journalists. “Let me tell you about 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 followed this by suggesting that laboratories should be sexually segregated.
Sadly, his speech made no effort to acknowledge science as an inclusive or equal profession. The female Korean scientists, hosts of the conference, face extreme gender disparity and make up only 17% of the countries researchers.
In a letter after the incident, they said his remarks “show that old prejudices are still well embedded in science cultures. On behalf of Korean female scientists, and all Koreans, we wish to express our great disappointment that these remarks were made at the event hosted by KOFWST. This unfortunate incident must not be portrayed as a private story told as a joke.”
Deborah Blum, also at the conference, asked Hunt to clarify his comments. He stated that while he intended to be ironic, “he does find it hard to collaborate with women because they are too emotional.”
Two days later, Hunt offered an empty apology on BBC Radio, stating that he merely meant to “be honest” and that “it was a very stupid thing to say in front of all those journalists.” Hunt could have used this moment to withdraw his comments, provide more than a hollow regret, or highlight achievements by women in science. If he had done so, perhaps this “internet tsunami” would have ceased; perhaps this situation would have turned into a positive.
Instead, he continued to complain that the public had treated him with cruelty and did not give him the chance to say “his side of the affair”, even though he had an opportunity soon after the event to explain himself.
His comments at the conference are consistent with past statements, such as an interview last year. “One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me … is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.”
Feminist Fionola Meredith has said that Hunt’s assertions were not damaging or injurious to women, and that gender equality will have nothing to gain by his resignation. I sorely disagree with this. Tim Hunt had the chance to repair his statements, but he did not. Whether it is in science or any other industry, these types of narrow-minded remarks are damaging and all too frequent. Regardless of whether or not it was a joke, the bottom-line is that these comments should not be happening. They are indicative of a wider cultural paradigm, and his resignation is ultimately a win for feminism, as it is a public portrayal that this behaviour is no longer acceptable.