As long as we’re talking about Tim Hunt, let’s do it right


This past June, biochemist and Nobel laureate Tim Hunt created a stir when he made now-infamous remarks in a speech at a women’s luncheon during the 2015 World Conference for Science Journalists:

“It's strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. 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. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now, seriously, I'm impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

Tim Hunt. Photo: Wikipedia

Shortly thereafter, three journalists in attendance tweeted and re-tweeted the most damning segment of the statement, bolded above. Later alleged to be a pitifully constructed (albeit benign) joke, this trimmed excerpt appeared downright Neanderthal out of the context of what was already a bizarrely lengthy and specific commentary on women.

Social media was ablaze within hours, and the fallout was immediate and brutal. The next day, under heavy pressure from his administrative superiors and from the public, Hunt resigned from his positions with University College London and the Royal Society Biological Sciences Awards Committee.  Discussion of the incident and its relationship to feminism, however, had gained momentum in the news and on social media, and the often-polarized conversation tumbled around the internet for weeks afterward.  

The complete account of Hunt’s words didn’t appear online until after his resignations, which fueled concerns that his treatment was more the result of whims of an uninformed internet mob rather than due process.  Storms gathered around other points of contention among comment thread dwellers and prestigious scientists alike — whether Hunt had truly been joking; whether his accomplishments as a Nobel Prize winner offset or aggravated the blow he’d delivered to collective female confidence; whether such a blow had been delivered at all.

How to win arguments and influence people

Examining the various facets of this particular controversy is certainly worthwhile. The greatest value of The Tim Hunt Conversation, though, is as a very public springboard for talking generally about women in historically male-dominated fields. Unfortunately, some of the most important nuances of these conversations were lost in the clamor of the sheer number of voices taking part. It is all too easy for logical fallacies to crop up when many people strive to be heard all at once, and much of the conversation was lost to hasty generalizations and facile false dichotomies.

We wrongly equate “Which punishment does he deserve?” with “What’s the best message to send?” When someone publicly appears to endorse bigotry — and when his position of influence elevates ‘endorses’ to ‘objectively validates’ in the eyes of many — it is rational and emotionally typical for an onlooker to hope for harsh retribution, in order to send an encouraging and equally public message to an unfairly marginalized group of people.

In the case of Tim Hunt, public demand to “make an example of him!” was meant to communicate that reducing “girls” to a workplace distraction would never be tolerated again. A noble sentiment, sure, but others argued that merely suspending him would have delivered most of the feminist message with a fraction of the damage to Hunt’s career and dignity—which was well deserved, as his Nobel was awarded for work with heavy implications for cancer research.

How do we morally weigh his great public service, the influence that it lent him, and the damage he did with that influence? It complicates things, but in situations like these, the answers to “What does he deserve?” and “What message is best?” may not be the same, and it may not be possible to implement them both.

Photo: Wikipedia

The urgency of a genuine cause and the fever of an internet mob may appear similar. But don’t let the mob undermine the cause. Internet mobs are like Taylor Swift songs: They sound simplistic, they’re equal parts repulsive and guilty pleasure, and they sprout up everywhere. They’re an inevitability of internet culture, born of unreliable information sources and endless platforms for loud opinions.  

But to dismiss, say, everyone who called for Tim Hunt’s resignation as members of a witch hunt is unfair. Even broken clocks are right twice a day, and even frenetic mobs may attach themselves to a position that turns out to be reasonable — particularly when a debate has only two or three sides. That is not to say that forcing Hunt to resign was necessarily the best outcome, but that some who advocated for that measure used careful reasoning.

Minorities within the ‘women’ category rarely get addressed. Public conversations about feminism, at least in the US and Europe, are usually implicitly about white women. Being a member of a minority group within a minority group, or belonging to any combination of marginalized groups, is a status that is woefully ignored and misunderstood.

For instance, the experience of being a black woman is often assumed to feel like the experience of being a black person, plus that of being a woman. But in reality, these experiences are not merely additive — they interact with each other. Womanhood exists differently within different cultures owing to varied histories, relationships between the genders, various amounts of emphasis placed on childbearing, and so on. Conversely, a comprehensive list of women’s issues must include, for instance, the inadequate obstetric care that kills mostly non-white women during childbirth in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

This pattern bears out for other combinations of sexual orientation, physical ability, and so on. This isn’t news; it’s simply been long neglected. The study of these experiences is called intersectionality, and it’s worth reading about.

Terms that are important for these conversations can sound obnoxious (deal with it). Some people will tune out of a conversation about feminism as soon as they hear the word ‘patriarchy’. Others don’t care for ‘privilege’. As with any popular field of study, the lexicon of feminism and other equality movements includes terms that have acquired buzzword status, making them sound pretentious, and often easily mocked.

‘Microaggression’, for example, is the pedantic-sounding word for one of the most searingly crucial concepts about inequality: casually degrading a group, like women or racial minorities, in a way that is ‘micro’ not because it’s insignificant but rather unintended or unconscious — because it references a narrative so deeply entrenched in a society that it doesn’t even need an explicit mention. Its usually offhand use reinforces that the validity of that narrative — say, of male superiority in tech — is a foregone conclusion.

Expressing surprise that a woman in an office is a programmer rather than a secretary is one example of a microaggression. Although that might not seem like a big deal (perhaps even suggesting feminists’ work is mostly complete if we’re focusing on such banal incidents), microaggressions can act like water torture, slowly eroding self-validation in marginalized people and revealing how deeply some unfair paradigms are bound up in the collective conscience.

More by Amy

All to say, obnoxious-sounding words are only superficially so.  Carefully discussing them will enrich a meaningful conversation, not derail it.

Repairing institutional barriers to equality is more important than any one man’s words. Hillary Young, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, recently published an editorial in the journal Science in which she asserts that the most productive outlet for frustration about mistreatment of female professionals is to combat institutional problems related to childbearing.

At least in academic settings in the US, paid maternity leave is scant, paternity leave is often nonexistent, daycare is prohibitively expensive, and professors have little financial motivation to hire female researchers who may have children soon.

Women in academia and elsewhere tend to have children at a time in their career when peak productivity is expected of them, and professional infrastructure must adapt to the reality of raising children if women (and men) are to continue being productive in their twenties and thirties.

As inappropriate as Tim Hunt’s remarks were, these issues hold greater heft.

Misogyny in all forms is tragically unnecessary. Calm, reasoned feminist discussion is not only valuable but also fascinating. Personal experience, though, suggests that even educated, forward-thinking people often either march toward such conversations in full battle gear, or avoid them entirely. The Tim Hunt debacle brought out the battle gear, but we can parlay its visceral response into sentiments more carefully articulated and longer lasting than resignations and Twitter hashtags.