Critical Reflections on “Huntgate”

The Nobel prize-winning Cambridge biochemist Tim Hunt caused uproar this week, with some comments — which he later said were intended self-deprecatingly and humorously — to an audience of scientists, many of them women, on the topic of women in laboratories. The full content of his comments, and his apology, can be found here.

As a result, he brought down a shitload of opprobrium on himself. He has since been required to resign from his honorary (that is, unpaid) position at University College London and, it appears, from a number of other committees too.

There are a number of things I’d like to say about this: for want of time (the northern hemisphere academics amongst us know that this is marking and exam board season), I’m not going to discuss them in detail, but just put them out there. I’ll be interested in any thoughts and responses.

  1. Tim Hunts’s comments, if they were intended to be funny, were undoubtedly really, really poorly judged. His later apology (which sounded a bit like “Damn, I shouldn’t have said it in front of journalists”) was not much better.
  1. I had very distant contact with him as a PhD student. He struck me then as socially awkward and of a very different generation, but no more so than many of the other guy scientists around (my own supervisor was an exception).
  1. I’m no longer a working scientist myself (though as we say, you can take the girl out of the control group…), but several women scientists whose views I respect have noted that Hunt’s words don’t reflect his actual behaviour over the years, which has been to encourage women scientists informally, as a mentor, and on formal committees.
  1. As Athene Donald noted in her blog, this kind of easy target sexism might be just that: an easy target that distracts us from harder ones.

At the end of the week of Huntgate, I found myself writing the following to the Times Higher Educational Supplement, the UK’s foremost academic trade mag:

If a Nobel Prize-winning scientist can be brought down by his poorly judged remarks about women working in the laboratory, why does the Higher Education Academy think it can get away with a recruitment advertisement.[*] in which every one of the 13 academics and students depicted (with the possible exception of an unidentifiable right arm) is male? At least Tim Hunt acknowledged that there *are* women in science.

Discuss.

[*] Published in the Times Higher Educational Supplement.

 

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Critical Reflections on “Huntgate” — 3 Comments

  1. There are lots of good questions to ask about institutional responses. Someone on my news feed turned up this earlier interview with Hunt, which suggests it wasn’t just a momentary lapse of cluelessness:

    Interviewer: “In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?

    Hunt: I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.”

    http://www.labtimes.org/i50/i_01.lasso

  2. Re point #3: This is a difficult. I constantly tell my students that nice people perpetuate oppression, sometimes without meaning to or being aware of it. Institutional oppressions don’t force people with privilege to always come off as mean. Especially for students who have a great deal of privilege, they tend to initially assume that as long as they don’t mean to be racist, transphobic, or what not, then they aren’t. This may or may not be the case with Tim Hunt, and I don’t want to make a claim about the appropriateness of the response to his comments. But it seems reasonable that people can be generally nice and even encouraging but still perpetuate problematic beliefs or systems. Even I have to apologize in class when I realize that I inadverdently made an ableist or other problematic statement while teaching.

  3. This is I think the key point, and it’s one I’ve made elsewhere: what do you do about someone whose behaviour in practice has been — according to several women scientists I know — pretty much exemplary, yet who makes offside verbals? Or, as another disability activist once said to me: I don’t care what they call me as long as they treat me right.

    I think we can all accept that language, discourse, is important in creating a particular climate of oppression or whatever. But do words count more than the actions?

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