Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s sexist comments about women in science have raised questions about what the right quantum of punishment is for sexism.
During a conference in Seoul on June 8, Tim Hunt, who was with the University College London said that the presence of women scientists in laboratories was distracting, and advocated single-sex labs as he did not want anything to stand in the way of women’s advancement.
The Guardian reported that it was journalist Connie St. Louis who first tweeted about the scientist’s comments at the conference.
— Connie St Louis (@connie_stlouis) June 8, 2015
Admitting that he had a reputation for being a chauvinist, Hunt said:
“Let me tell you about my trouble with 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.”
Gradually, these comments gained attention on Twitter, where the hashtage #distractinglysexy trended. Numerous women scientists tweeted images of themselves with sarcastic comments, and other abuse was also hurled at Hunt.
— Giulia (@DrGiuliaLanza) June 12, 2015
— Lorene Lynn (@lorenelynn) June 12, 2015
— Want2opr8 (@drtanthony) June 12, 2015
In an interview with the Today programme, however, he defended his remarks saying that he was speaking from personal experience that science suffered due to those “emotional entanglements”.
In two days, he had been asked to resign from his post at the University College of London and also from the European Research Centre. Later, in an interview to The Guardian, Hunt and his wife, also a professor at UCL, Mary Collins, said that they had been “hung out to dry” because he had made those remarks. In that interview with Guardian, both Hunt and Collins said that his remarks were inappropriate but Hunt was not sexist in practice, even though he had made those remarks.
The couple was also pained by the manner in which Hunt was asked to resign from his posts without seeking an explanation from him.
In the week since Hunt’s remarks become controversial, there has been reportage in the British media about how work culture in STEM (science, technology and engineering) remains male-dominated. There has also been criticism of how being sexist never mattered to Hunt, and that he was unapologetic about it.
Hunt had defended his actions saying he was nervous when he spoke at the conference at Seoul and that he had committed one blunder after another. Whether this is true or not, time and investigative reportage will tell.
But social media have wreaked havoc with people’s lives, and this has been documented. Given that the man’s career is finished, there needs to be a discussion on whether the punishment suited the crime.