Mizu Nishikawa-Toomey focuses her microscope on the controversial UCL sacking
Tim Hunt’s statement at the World Conference for Science Journalists was received by most as irresponsible and flippant. My friends commented on his nasal hair, suitably funny memes and hash tags were created…. All good fun.
However, once in a while I step out of the feminist, Labour voting, wind turbine building, utopian cocoon of my Facebook feed to look at the opinions of people I don’t agree with. After a little outer-shell browsing, I discovered that UCL’s decision to remove Hunt’s title as “honorary professor” was received with mixed, heated opinions.
Some accused UCL as being under the mob rule of social media and the press. Hunt had meant to break the ice with a not-so-politically correct joke, which cost him his whole career. Many people were shocked that he was dismissed by UCL without any evidence that his statement reflected his character in any way. There have even been female scientific colleagues of Hunt’s who have testified with warm and fuzzy statements such as “Tim provides great support and encouragement for younger scientists, both male and female”.
Hunt stresses the fact that the comment was meant in a light-hearted, jokey way. To put it bluntly, it was Laddish banter. 5 years ago, a comment such as this would have gone un-noticed, tweeted or discussed. Just a part of a daily life, but now in 2015, a man’s career is over. Some say that it demonstrates unequal treatment of male public figures, who need to constantly monitor how they address members of the opposite sex due to fear of resignation, in a way that a female counterpart would not.
So is it fair that Hunt has lost his livelihood as a result of a seemingly innocuous comment? Can we really achieve gender equality by taking away the rights of men?
The answer to this question relies on whether the scientific community is willing to accept that historical and social factors in the western world lead to men having a head start in science. In short, men have a long track history of prominent male scientist role models, receiving on average more pay than their female counterparts. Men also do not have to attend to biases such as those present in senior academic positions like Hunt’s, which lead to further discrimination of women in science unless they are acted upon.
Of course we also have to remember that Hunt was a very public figure for UCL, who should have known better than to make such asinine comments in the context of an academic conference, whether or not he made them as a joke.
The reality is that if the under-representation of women is going to be addressed within the next generation, there will be more changes to the social norms of what men can do and say until there is a level playing field between female and male scientists. Hopefully there will be more crying and heart-broken girls in the labs for the years to come, much to the disappointment of Hunt.
Featured image: IFLScience