Tim Hunt: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

UPDATE: I find it fascinating when outrage does and doesn't explode on the internet. Tim Hunt got an immediate rebuttal, a hashtag, and his university essentially forced him to step down. Then Andy Benoit, writer for Sports Illustrated, tweets that women's sports are "not worth watching" and there is... moderate anger? Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers call him out, and that seems to be about it.  How about a #worthwatching hashtag for lady athletes?


You know what I'm talking about when I bring up Tim Hunt, right?  The nobel prize-winning scientist who said that men and women should have separate labs because when men and women work together they fall in love and women cry?  And also that women are distractingly sexy in the workplace?

Yeah.

Stupid, inappropriate, and unacceptable things to say anywhere, but especially in public, into a microphone, to an audience of journalists who are listening to you because you are a respected scientist.  That's not okay.  He was joking.  That doesn't matter.  You do not get a free pass to say racist or sexist or homophobic things because you are trying to be funny.

There have been a ton of responses, some that pleasantly further the sexism calling the response "hysteria" (thanks for reminding us that all emotional responses are due to a lady's uterus making her crazy and not legitimate anger, Telegraph), some including quotes from female students who have worked with him and say he was a great mentor and not sexist (Star Tribune), some from other men who say "yeah, but women do cry a lot" (The National Post), and some super sarcastic (Medium).

Here's my thoughts on the good, bad, and ugly that came out of Tim Hunt's remarks.

The Good

We now have a mass, public movement of people asserting that this kind of sexism is not okay.  Men and women around the world have been reminded that making these kinds of remarks (and holding the beliefs behind them) is unacceptable.  That it hurts everyone.

Also good, nay, great, is the #distractinglysexy response.  It was the perfect mixture of poking fun and asserting the vast, diverse, and impressive contributions of women to science.  The hundreds (thousands?) of images flooding the hashtag showed that women are making science happen alongside their male colleagues (because human beings can be around each other) and that they can be angry and funny at the same time.  After all, as Louis CK and Amy Schumer have taught us, being funny is the best way to get a tough point across.

The Bad

The complete dismissal of Tim Hunt as a person was not so great.  Don't get me wrong, I fully support the backlash.  Backlash is how we know where our lines are culturally.  By getting angry at or making fun of something someone said, we tell them and each other that they do not represent the rest of us.  That certain things are not okay.

Is it okay, however, to demonize someone as a person based on one remark?  Before you answer, think of some of the worst things you've ever said when you were nervous and trying to be funny.  Or nervous and trying to sound smart.  Or just nervous.  Or not nervous at all, but just saying things without thinking.

We have ALL said terrible things.  Sure, most of us don't say them in public, into a microphone, to a bunch of journalists, but that's mostly because most of us don't have that opportunity in our day-to-day lives.  We all like to think we'd be smarter than to say some of the worst things we've said in this kind of setting, but you don't know until you get there.

If this were a pattern of behaviour, or even if douchey Richard Dawkins was the only one saying that people have gone too far, that would be one thing.  It means a lot to me to hear his wife and other women who have worked with him defend him (and before you dismiss his wife as a love-whipped woman from a past era, she is an incredibly respected scientist herself and has some very intelligent responses to the whole situation).

That tells me that, while his remarks are not okay, they probably don't actually represent his views.

Should we get mad?  Yes.  Should we make fun of him with #distractinglysexy and perhaps other internet memes?  Of course.  Should we use this as a catalyst to challenge sexism in science?  Above all other responses, definitely.  Should we ruin this man's life work?  Well... I say probably not.

The Ugly

The biggest ugly here is sexism.  The fact that, whether or not he meant them, Tim Hunt's comments represent and affirm overall mistreatment and neglect of women in science, is very ugly.  I am not a woman in science, so I don't know what it's like, but it's not surprising that this is an issue given the fact that patriarchy is never-endingly present in every field except maybe nursing and teaching elementary school.

Another ugly was seeing the response labelled as a "feminist pile-on" or "feminism gone to far", or whatever other way that the defence blamed the issue on the feminists who are too sensitive and scratching Tim Hunt's eyes out.

Framing feminists as bulldog, ball-busting bad girls (once again) is not exactly helpful to anyone's case for equality or understanding.  Yes, I do think things went too far, but guess what?  That wasn't just the "feminists" - it was also the general media, who I would be hard-pressed to define as feminist.  It was the university that instantly tossed him aside to avoid bad press - an action that does nothing to actually deal with systemic problems at the heart of the issue.

To brush the negative backlash off as a "feminist witch hunt" absolves anyone else of their responsibility in addressing the real issues at play.  It turns it into a "him vs. crazy pseudo-women" fight instead of a dialogue about the actual problems women face in science and lets those who actually are sexist off the hook because they can just scoff at the "stupid feminists".

The argument has been made that this is larger than Tim Hunt as an individual, this reflects a need for change in the sciences.  I agree.  That's why I don't think ending his career is the answer.  Making an example out of someone is not justice, it's public relations, and it doesn't solve anything in the long run.

Anger is good.  Creating a funny-yet-pointed hashtag in response is excellent.  Using an individual as a catalyst for conversation and change is wonderful.  But does tossing someone out to dry completely accomplish change?  Or does it lead to more finger pointing and polarizing of sides?

Best case scenario, in this chain of events, other sexist men in science will be afraid to open their mouths.  This means we'll have less public sexist remarks, which is great, but it won't change their views.  It won't change how they treat their female colleagues, who they give promotions or grant money or the "fun jobs" in the lab to, who they invite to co-author their papers, or what kind of culture they create among their younger male colleagues.

For that kind of change to happen, we have to actually engage.

Now, let's end things off by having a good chuckle with some scientists who happen to have ovaries.




















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