36 Words


You’re 72; a respected male biologist, fellow of both the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, 2001 Nobelist in physiology and medicine, husband to a distinguished female immunology professor, knighted for services to science. You’re giving an informal speech at a Women In Science lunch, part of a conference of science journalists in faraway South Korea. With a twinkle in your eye, you risk revealing your human side with a candid 36-word admission about your experiences when younger:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they’re in the lab: You fall in love with them; they fall in love with you; and when you criticize them they cry.”

The audience smiles appreciatively at your self-deprecating humor, and your ironic flirtation with stereotypes.

No it doesn’t. This is 2015. The room freezes. You struggle on for five minutes trying to win back the stony-faced audience. The hole you’re in is deep, but you just can’t stop digging.

And the room is full of journalists. At the speed of a tweet your remarks circle the globe. Overnight your name becomes mud.

This was real life for Sir Timothy Richard Hunt FRS FMedSci, honorary professor in Life Sciences at University College London, between June 9 and 11. The Royal Society dropped him like a hot potato instantly, on the day of the speech. “I’m really sorry that I said what I said,” Hunt told the BBC, back-pedaling desperately; but it was too late. Before he was off the plane from Seoul, his wife had been told that he must resign from UCL or be dismissed. 48 hours after the speech he had lost his departmental affiliation, his role in the European Research Council, and his seat on the Royal Society’s awards committee. His academic occupation is gone.

Does my vivid presentation of his story make me sound like one of Sir Tim’s sympathizers? Commenters below will probably assume that (they won’t even have read this far). But I’m not.

I once taught at University College London. Just 3 percent of the professors in the University of London federal system were women, and the university did not appear to regard that as scandalous. A female colleague of mine, internationally famous for highly original research, was earning a lecturer’s salary that was maybe half what they paid to slothful male professors who did no research. The university seemed content with that too.

I fled my temporary lecturer position and emigrated, to become a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I served six years as dean of graduate studies and research. Tackling underrepresentation of women in science programs, and opposing sexism in science departments, was part of my job. Today 38 percent of UCSC’s faculty are women, and women PhDs are graduating in all of the sciences. (Physics, predictably, lagged a bit, but at last began to graduate women PhDs, and eventually admitted women to its faculty. “Excellence mustn’t be sacrificed!” they used to tell me when I tussled with them. It wasn’t sacrificed: UCSC’s physicists rank No. 1 in the country for citation impact.)

No, if you seek a defender of senior male scientists discouraging “girls” in the lab, it’s not me you’re looking for.

And yet I will say this: It would be a better world if we were all relaxed enough to handle 36 words of misguided and even offensive silliness in a luncheon speech by an emeritus professor without going into nuclear high dudgeon.

Yes, I agree that scientific decision making must be wrested from the grip of the aging male establishment and turned over to a more diverse younger scientific community.

Yes, Hunt’s image of girls wrecking the lab by provoking romances and bursting into tears seems like a throwback to 1950s rom coms about women in the workplace (see the furious polemic by Catherine Bennett).

And UCL, the first institution in Britain to admit women to degree courses on the same terms as men (also the first to admit Jews), cannot be blamed for cutting its ties with a scientist who (albeit unintentionally) had made it a global byword for unreconstructed sexism.

Nevertheless, the reactions I approved of most were not the rapid and savage administrative ones, but the unexpected linguistic ones from rank-and-file women in science. They were killingly funny on Twitter (#distractinglysexy). They posted selfies in body-concealing boiler suits, biohazard protective equipment, or Antarctic weather gear; they posted cautionary signs about falling in love, or warnings about floors wet from crying; they recommended marine ecology as a field for women (underwater no one can see you cry!); they were brilliant.

They know that the job of establishing women’s equality in science is not completed, but it is well under way, and unstoppable now. They are well aware that their strategy should involve service on award committees–not just getting Tim Hunt off them.

The unthinking sexism of the old farts needs and deserves to be ridiculed; but outraged condemnation and withdrawal of departmental affiliations might suggest that the comments of these oldsters are important. In truth, they aren’t any more. We should laugh them off.

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