Should UCL have asked Tim Hunt to resign?

Dillan Pisavadia.

It is now five months since Twitter and the media went into meltdown over Tim Hunt, after his supposedly less than positive comments about women in STEM in front of a room of journalists. As a result of his statements Hunt paid the ultimate price, resigning from his honorary professorship with UCL. Many supporters of Hunt at the time cried foul at his treatment after years of distinguished service, maintaining that he was forced out, rather than resigning of his own volition. Now the dust has finally settled, questions still remain over the entire affair, in particular whether or not UCL were right in their handling of the situation.

The speech at the centre of the storm was delivered by Hunt on 9 June this year at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ). Asked at short notice to provide a few words at a luncheon – consisting solely of female journalists and scientists no less – Hunt discussed his “trouble with girls” in the lab environment: “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry”. His proposed solution to such a dilemma was gender segregation, creating separate working environments for men and women.

“a recent study…on the UK labour market found that women make up just 12.8% of STEM occupations”

Naturally, large swathes of the public took offense to these comments, and rightly so: opinions such as these are not only sexist towards women, but also denigrating. The idea that women are at the mercy of their emotions when in close contact with the opposite gender is farcical and antiquated in a modern society where women are equal members. Remarks like these also tend to reinforce the stigma of science as a boys club, driving away large numbers of potential female scientists at a time when they need to be encouraged; a recent study by Women in Science and Engineering (Wise) on the UK labour market found that women make up just 12.8% of STEM occupations. Bill Gates put it best: when only half the working talent is being utilised, the nation’s full potential will never be realised.

The media was quick to report and condemn the statements coming out of the conference. One of the more humorous responses to Hunt’s address was on Twitter: female scientists began mocking his comments by posting pictures of themselves at work in normal attire, under the hashtag “distractinglysexy”.

Hunt eventually went on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to apologise for his comments, although he did reiterate the issue of “emotional entanglements” creating issues at work – something he had personally experienced in the past. By this point however the damage had been done, and Hunt had no option but to step down from his post. However, many commentators – including noted popular physicist Dr Brian Cox – have made the case that Hunt had been let out to dry, and the situation should never have progressed as far as it did; on closer examination, it does seem a valid argument to make.

No full transcript exists of the speech delivered by Hunt, and thus all interpretations came from a few select members of the audience. One of those present who first broke the story and expressed great offense at Hunt’s speech was writer Connie St Louis, who deemed it sexist. While her views focused on the inflammatory statements, recollections of the speech by others present give the impression that his words may have been taken out of context. An approximate reconstruction of his remarks (by an unnamed EU official) appear to convey a light-heartened manner in which the speech was given: Hunt began by questioning why such a “chauvinistic monster” such as himself had been asked to talk to a room full of female scientists, and extolled the importance of science in women despite people like himself. This is further corroborated by the only known recording of Hunt’s address, where he concluded by hoping the prospects of women in science continue to improve.

The statements were quickly shared over social media without a true understanding of the greater message, and Tim Hunt soon became subject to acute, caustic abuse. It eventually came to light that because of this outcry Hunt’s resignation was forced upon him by the UCL board, rather than of his own volition.

“It appears the fear felt by UCL over negative public opinion became paramount in their dealings with Hunt”

Over time, increasing numbers soon came out in support of Hunt, including former students and postdoctoral fellows of both genders. Sir Colin Blackmore, the honorary president of the Association of British Writers (ABSW), resigned in protest over the support given to the comments by Connie St. Louis. Hunt himself felt that he had been betrayed by UCL in their handling of the situation, not once being asked for his side of the events.

It appears the fear felt by UCL over negative public opinion became paramount in their dealings with Hunt. This is not the first time that trial by social media has occurred – one only needs to look at the disproportionate response to Dr Matt Taylor in November, after his ill-advised appearance on the world stage donning a shirt covered in pictures of scantily clad women.

As more and more details of the story are analysed, the fiasco increasingly reveals itself to be an unfair inquisition into Hunt by the general public. Taken at face value, his reflection on women in the work place does seem genuinely sexist and insulting to female researchers. On the other hand, when read as part of the full address it appears to be a more amusing outlook on his own life experiences.

Hunt’s affair is unlikely to be the last when information can travel across social media at such speed, with little regard to their original intention. For Hunt, had UCL not acted so hastily there may have been a different outcome; on recollection, it does seem there should have been.

Should UCL have asked Tim Hunt to resign?

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