What the scientific community can learn from Tim Hunt

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What the scientific community can learn from Tim Hunt

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 

What the scientific community can learn from Tim Hunt Reviewed by on June 20, 2015 .

Mizu Nishikawa-Toomey focuses her microscope on the controversial UCL sacking



  • 1) Tim Hunt made a jocular observation that men and women working together in labs can be emotionally distracting for both sexes. Indeed, he met his own wife whilst working in the lab! (hence the deliberate irony in his comment)

    2) Tim Hunt’s joke references his personal experience: a problem he has had, working in labs in the past, is that women tend to cry more when confronted with criticism. Nevertheless he fully supports women in science. “No one seems to mention his main speech in Korea in which, according to the ERC President, he was ‘very supportive towards women in science and he said that he hoped there was nothing that barred women from science’” (Dame Athene Donald).

    3) After making his joke, Sir Tim continued: “Now seriously…”

    Please follow the link below to read more on Sir Tim’s story and, if you agree, sign the petition to help reinstate Sir Tim Hunt:


    We have over 1200 signatures so far, including comments by feminists, professors and former colleagues of Sir Tim. Please share this petition on Facebook and spread knowledge of it so we can hit our target of 2000 signatures!

  • Lina

    So we should brush off any future ‘laddish banter’, because he is a big name? Preventing sexism is not taking away the rights of men. Tim Hunt deserves to be kicked out of university if he decides to target his female students on the premise of some archaic notions. Good riddance.


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