Earlier this year, Tim Hunt was thrust into the public eye after speaking at a World Conference in Science Journalism and making the comment: “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.”1 Hunt’s words were first released to the public via a post on Twitter, written by Connie St Louis, a lecturer in science journalism who witnessed the events. The sexism displayed in these words sparks an outrage that, if social media were my outlet, would be channelled through a series of violent stabs of the keyboard. However, stepping back from the rage and trying to gain a better picture of the person behind the quote, I find myself with a little pity for a man whose expertise lies in science rather than PR, and whose attempt at a “joke”2 had such disastrous consequences. I doubt anyone can claim to have never misspoken, or inadvertently offended someone, but the majority of us had a relatively small audience, with little danger of our words being immortalised and circulated through social media, culminating in a messy end to an illustrious career.
Searching for Tim Hunt’s name through Google reveals just how overpowering these recent events have been, with news articles about his comments dwarfing any news of his past achievements, which include a 2001 Nobel Prize for work in cell biology.
I can understand the uproar, given that the country is suffering from a damaging deficiency of women workers in STEM subjects. A mere 14.4% of jobs in STEM are occupied by women3, which appears to be partly due to sexism in the workplace and a perception that women don’t belong in these careers. An article in the Guardian4 reveals some appalling stories from women working in science, and the everyday sexism they have experienced. This type of behaviour desperately needs to be addressed and would certainly deserve the harsh punishment that descended upon Hunt. However, comments from those who work with Hunt reveal that he does not fall into this category5: Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge, explained that “he has worked tirelessly in support of young scientists of both genders”6.
Reports reveal that UCL requested Hunt’s resignation so soon after the comments were tweeted that he hadn’t even returned home from the conference before hearing the news2. This left no time for Hunt to put his words into context and, more crucially, no time for an investigation into his everyday behaviour in the workplace, and his treatment of female colleagues.
My defence of Hunt is not so polarised as to categorically place him as a victim of social media and rushed judgements. His insensitively and poorly chosen joke does deserve to be reprimanded, but I think it grossly disproportionate that his whole life’s work should be been reduced to a few unwise words. Instead, he should have been given the opportunity to put the situation right, and become a part of addressing the gender imbalance in STEM.