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#distractinglysexy: Sir Tim Hunt’s gift to feminism in science

Lucie de Beauchamp posting on the #distractinglysexy Twitter hashtag. Lucie de Beauchamp

#distractinglysexy: Sir Tim Hunt’s gift to feminism in science

Lucie de Beauchamp posting on the #distractinglysexy Twitter hashtag. Lucie de Beauchamp

Sir Tim Hunt, a man very much of the last century, was obviously ignorant of this century’s etiquette on at least two counts: it is not acceptable today to be sexist; and, if you are publicly sexist, your comments will go viral in seconds, particularly if you are a Nobel Laureate.

Speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Korea last week, he stated he was in favour of single-sex labs, adding some thoughts on women in science:

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.

In the days that followed Hunt was condemned to the 21st-century equivalent of the stocks: public humiliation by social media, particularly thanks to the #distractinglysexy Twitter tag.

As soon as he returned to the UK from Seoul, he was asked to resign from University College London, where he was an honorary researcher – a non-paid position.

Sir Tim has since acknowledged that his remarks were “inexcusable”, stating in The Guardian:

I stood up and went mad […] I was very nervous and a bit confused but, yes, I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way. There was some polite applause and that was it, I thought. I thought everything was OK. No one accused me of being a sexist pig.

Moving on

Times have certainly changed since Sir Tim’s undergraduate days in Cambridge during the 1960s, when he probably didn’t have to worry much about women in the science lab. The experiences of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell reflect the attitudes and behaviours of Britain in that decade, when she was only woman in the physics honours class at Glasgow University.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell at TEDxStormont.

A tradition of the time was to cat call, bang on desks and generally create havoc and noise when a woman entered the physics lecture hall. This was the image of science and the widely accepted behaviour that the young Sir Tim grew up with, but it doesn’t mean we should accept his latest gaff; he is old enough and smart enough to know that men in power have influence.

Hunt’s life has changed significantly as a result of the social media reaction to his comments. For some observers this is a sad tale of an eminent scientist who was treated harshly for an innocent joke, been hung out to dry in social media and robbed of any serious future in science.

Others, like the women behind the #distractinglysexy campaign, celebrate that we live in an era when an eminent male scientist is told that it is no longer OK to be sexist, even in jest. Personally I would go so far as to thank Sir Tim for bringing this sexist discourse to light, for the devil is in “innocent jokes” and incidental comments of the “good guys”. Death by a thousand jokes for many women in science is enough to bring them to tears.

Validating the issue

The tragedy is that these remarks might be of a bygone era but some of the behaviours and attitudes remain the same. Current research shows that women scientists often dress differently for work so they feel less “female” in a male dominated working environment.

The research, focusing on the experiences of women scientists, reveals an undercurrent of sexism in many science workplaces and tells a story of girls avoiding male dominated science careers and women leaving science because they find the culture difficult to work with.

In an age where there is legislation and policy against workplace inequity and sexual harassment, we rely on the ignorance of people like Sir Tim to highlight the subtle culture of sexism that permeates science workplaces to the present day.

This is important since there is an ongoing debate about the status of women in science. And while the number of women in science is increasing, they continue to dominate the “softer” sciences and at lower levels than their male colleagues.

In March this year, Professor Sharon Bell highlighted that the number of women in the science research workforce decreases beyond the post-doctoral stage. This is because many women are trying to negotiate family and career, and for some it becomes too difficult to continue in science.

In her article, Bell suggests a change in paradigm to better support diversity in the science research workforce. Such a change requires first bringing to light the character of the culture that supports the existing ways of being in science and we can thank people like Sir Tim for that.

Sir Tim will perhaps be remembered as a fallen Nobel Laureate. I prefer to remember him as a man who achieved international fame by innocently highlighting the subtle sexism that permeates science in the 21st Century. Women scientists thank you Sir Tim, you have validated our experiences by your ironic joke.