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Distractingly Sexy: Scientists That Happen To Be Women Just Can’t Help It–Tim Hunt Wins the Asshole of the Week Award

June 24, 2015

Just when you think you can do your own thing, have found your niche and are getting shit done, someone comes along to call you sexy. And that’s a bad thing, because your sexiness is so distracting that the men in your lab can’t function. The solution: just don’t have women around. One male scientist calls it “having trouble with girls,” the grossest under representation of a scientific fact this year, and says that women in science are “distractingly sexy.” This radical statement made such a controversial stir that NPR reported on it:

A Nobel-winning biochemist’s announcement that he has “trouble with girls” in labs because they either cause romantic sparks or start crying when criticized ignited wide condemnation…

If you’re catching up, British scientist Tim Hunt, 72, made the remarks at an international conference in South Korea, where he reportedly said, “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” On Wednesday, Hunt apologized — to an extent — and resigned his honorary professorship at University College London.

Strangely enough Tim Hunt’s view of falling in love with women then leads directly to criticism of them, at which point women cry? Hunt’s characterization of his “trouble with girls,” doesn’t begin to cover his misogyny. What a better way to express affection than to be mean to a woman? And let’s not even get into the point that demonstrating affection to women you work with because you “fall in love with them” is not an appropriate response to a professional work situation. Tim Hunt must have taken notes from the Lolita scientific manual, whereby all women, even young girls, are calculating their lust-inducing potential to lure unwary men to their doom, or to justify some pedophilic-type leanings. You choose.

Women, unsurprisingly, have taken umbrage with this characterization and have begun tweeting photos of themselves with the caption #distractingly sexy

Tim Hunt is married. He also called himself a “chauvinistic monster,” and he also describes scientists as “women scientists.” In short, he is a contradiction of terms. Perhaps he was trying to be funny, but it’s not funny to say that women are responsible for men’s feelings. The second part of Tim Hunt’s speech was reported to be of a different tone according to a story in The Daily Mail.UK:

According to The Times, a report of the event by a European Commission official who was at the lunch was suppressed by the commission.

He wrote: ‘This is the transcript of Sir Tim Hunt’s speech, or rather a toast, as precise as I can recall it: ‘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?’

According to the official, Sir Tim immediately said after: ‘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.’

The second part of the speech doesn’t sound nearly as obnoxious, which just goes to show that Tim Hunt touched a nerve, and that’s a depiction that people are quick to jump on. The bottom line is: you don’t act like something is a joke when it’s used to abuse women and prevent them from achieving their career goals. Abuse of women isn’t funny. Perhaps Tim Hunt really was trying to make a point about the chauvinism in his field, but misogyny isn’t a joking matter. At his age, and with is credentials, he should know what is funny and what is not. Apparently other academics are making light, as well:

Since his resignation, Sir Tim Hunt has received strong support from the academic community – with eight fellow Nobel laureates coming backing him.

Professor Richard Dawkins, 74, said the scientist had been victim of ‘baying witch-hunt’.

While Cambridge academic Mary Beard said she would ‘like to smack his bottom’ and ‘give him a piece of my mind’ – but that she wouldn’t she ‘wouldn’t drum him out of the academic town’.

Sir Tim’s wife, Professor Mary Collins has since claimed he had little choice but to resign.

She said that while her husband was flying home from the conference, a senior figure at UCL phoned her to say: ‘Tim had to resign immediately or be sacked’.

There are now over 2,000 signatures on an online petition to reinstate him to his post at UCL.

Meanwhile, members of the university’s governing council are mounting a potential rebellion over the university’s handling of the affair – with it now being claimed that talks next month could lead to Sir Tim being reinstated.

Why not send a message that joking about sexual harassment at work isn’t funny and can lead to your resignation? Oh, well because there are plenty of people around to say that it’s “just a joke.” Except that it’s not, not really. It’s not funny. It’s not appropriate, and then to trot out the wife card, as if he couldn’t really be an ass about women because he is married after all, some woman wanted him, is trumping up the whole bit of it being funny to laugh about sexual harassment at work, as if it’s just a British joke. Hunt, it seems, blames the internet for apparently blowing it all out of proportion, taking his remarks out of context, or maybe just presenting them to the world for review. Hunt may as well be saying: “I’m not a chauvinist, but…women scientists need their own labs…”

Connie St.Louis broke the story on Tim Hunt’s comments, and she has been mulling that decision and Tim Hunt’s supposed victim status:

The sociologist Andre Lorde defines sexism as “the belief in the inherent superiority of one sex and thereby the right to dominance”. The Tim Hunt story has followed a typical pattern of oppression. First there is a hollow apology. Then there is claim about being misunderstood. Next there is an outcry from the establishment.

So it’s no surprise that a growing number of people, mainly men, have come forward to support Hunt. Hunt’s interview in the Observer at his lovely house in rural Hertfordshire is full of anecdotes of him doing the grocery shopping and cooking. (A modern reconstructed man?) It ends with both Hunt and his wife, Mary Collins, complaining that they have been “hung out to dry” by the various scientific establishments.

Deborah Blum, an American colleague who also was at the conference lunch and heard Hunt’s remarks, has published a piece about the incident. She asked him to clarify his comments but he stood by them. She has storified this on Twitter.

And here is the issue: how can Tim Hunt be hung out to dry based on his own comments? The scientific community is supposed to embrace joking about the harassment of women? Tim Hunt says it’s a joke:

During Hunt’s outburst, the female Korean scientists and engineers were stunned and confused. However, they have now spoken. They were deeply offended and didn’t get Hunt’s “jokes”. Nobody was laughing. Hunt now claims he added the words “now seriously” before going on to praise the role of women in science and in Korean society. “The words ‘now seriously’ make it very clear that I was making a joke, albeit a very bad one, but they were not mentioned in the first reports and I was deluged with hate mail,” Hunt said. He did not say this, nor did he praise the role of women in science and in Korean society. I wish he had; things would have been so much better.

Come on women scientists, can’t you just take a joke? Such a joke to demean women entirely by their sex, just a joke. Other men have rushed to Tim Hunt’s aid, apparently feeling that their chauvinism might be noticed on an international stage, and gasp, affect their jobs:

Next eight Nobel laureates, plus the ubiquitous Richard Dawkins, have come out in support of Hunt. There are over 2,000 signatures on an online petition to reinstate him to his honorary post at UCL. Contrast this with 200+ signatures on a petition that I started calling on the Royal Society to elect its first female president. The Nobel eight made an idiotic attempt to equate the upset caused by Hunt’s ill advised and sexist comments with some kind of “chilling effect” on academics.

This is an absurd idea and deserves to be outed for what it is, a deeply cynical attempt to say that scientists can do and say what they like. In the name of academic freedom? Is science so special that any old sexist (or for that matter racist) words that they utter are allowed? The answer is and must be a resounding no.

Connie St. Louis, the woman who broke the story about Tim Hunt, has been frustrated by the outpouring of male support for derogatory remarks against women that were “just a joke.” Sexual harassment in academics isn’t a joking matter. It’s not a joke to write off all women in science as crybabies, or to say that all women cry when you [men] criticize them. Tim Hunt wins the Asshole of the Week Award, just a joke after all.

 

 

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