Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Actually about Tim Hunt

I've already written something that was not really about Tim Hunt, but deferred writing about his comments myself until I'd allowed my brain to filter through all the opinions I'd read and decide what I thought. It's a bit too easy to be a cushion sometimes and bear the imprint of the last arse to sit on you.

Having shaken myself free of all the arses on the internet who were leaving their impression upon me, I feel now as though I've sort of, maybe, decided what I think. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it's not black-and-white. There are shades and nuances to what I think that simply don't seem to get breathing space in the knee-jerk "burn him!" opinion pieces that were written immediately after his idiotic comments.

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.”

First of all, those comments were absolutely ridiculous. If they were meant as a joke, it was a joke that fell very, very flat. But it seems as though the reporting of the comments may have been, shall we say, a little deficient, because he claims his very next phrase was “now seriously”, which is a bit of a signpost to the idea that the previous statement wasn't serious.

The trouble arises not because Professor Hunt wasn't serious, but because of the number of people who think he was. And not, in my view, the girls who might want to become scientists or the women who already are scientists, but the men who think his "joke" is the truth, or even holds a kernel of truth. I was absolutely horrified by the volume of online commenters who referred to "feminazis" being out to get Professor Hunt, the ones who stated that there were "no" decent female scientists anyway, the ones who claimed women were physiologically unable to be rational and dispassionate and the ones who claimed that segregated labs are the logical extension of the single-sex train carriages that women want (because, obviously, avoiding being raped is exactly the same as stifling scientific collaboration).

I have a nasty suspicion that Professor Hunt hasn't actually had the misfortune to spend much time with people who genuinely think that women don't have a place in the lab. Or the boardroom. Or in parliament. Or at the bench. More to the point, even if he has been surrounded by misogynists all his life, because he isn't a woman, he will never have felt the impact of their attitudes personally. He will not have had his ideas casually ignored, only to hear them lauded when a man has them. He will not have been glanced at and ignored as eyes scan the room looking for the person who's actually in charge. He will not have been over-looked for promotion because he's in his mid-thirties, married, and his supervisor thinks he's going to start a family soon. He will not have watched his pay remain consistently behind that of a colleague doing similar work who happens to possess a different configuration of genitalia.

So, perhaps what he said was meant as a joke. I think it probably was. But when you're living a life where in a thousand tiny ways your worth, your abilities, your contributions and your intellect are doubted and undermined every single day, then a "joke" that reinforces the prejudices arrayed against you is, at best, unhelpful. And honestly, he should have known better. He wouldn't, I hope, say something crass and cliched and discriminatory about people of any particular skin colour, or religion, or age, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation, and he shouldn't have done so about women either.

In the end, he may (as he has pointed out) have done more good than harm, because the massive publicity, and the #distractinglysexy tweets, and the backlash against his comments, have brought the issues of sexism in the workplace, and the scientific workplace in particular, to the fore and prompted discussion on the subject. But the end doesn't justify the means. The fact that good may have come of his comments isn't an excuse to make derogatory jokes when you're in a position of authority and responsibility, when your opinions are respected and sought-after.

Was there an over-reaction to his comments? Perhaps. Though he certainly needed to apologise, explain and defend himself. And if I were a woman applying for a grant and found that he was sitting on the awarding committee, I'm not sure I'd feel confident that I was getting a fair hearing. I would have had lingering doubts about how much smoke there could be without fire, about whether there was a part of Professor Hunt who did think there was "trouble with girls". So I think it was probably right that he step down from sitting on grant-awarding committees at least.

On the other hand, as Athene Donald points out in her excellent blog, the evidence from the rest of his career is that he was (is) a fine scientist who has supported and mentored men and women throughout their careers with no hint of misogyny. If he really had been an abominable sexist beast who ruined the careers of aspiring female scientists, there would surely have been some of those women speaking up to say "Yep, he's a swine and he trampled on my academic development" after he made his comments. And yet there were no such voices. Nobody that I've seen or heard has actually provided any hint of a suggestion that he ever behaved in a sexist manner towards them. I would have hoped that that would count in his favour.

I don't usually take a particularly rabid stance on -isms, and am actively irritated when told I "can't" have an opinion on a subject on which I don't possess direct first-hand experience. Because I'm white, I can't have an opinion on any race issues? Because I'm a scientist I can't express a view on art? Because I'm employed I can't have an opinion on the unemployment benefits system? You name it, I've heard it and it's annoyed me. And yet, on this occasion I'm intensely and viscerally irritated by Boris Johnson, Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox et al sticking their oar in to defend Tim Hunt. What the hell do they think they know about whether accusing women of being "trouble" in a lab is appropriate, or what level of reaction is appropriate? They do not know what it's like to face a relentless attitude that the science lab is not for them, or know how demoralising it is to hear someone so senior essentially say just that, even in jest. Did their hearts sink to find column inches being filled with debates about the differences between men and women? Do they spend their lives just wanting to be treated as a person, instead of being assessed and pigeonholed by gender first? I doubt it. I doubt that at any point in their professional lives anyone has thought "hmmm, eminently qualified, seems to know what he's doing, but on the other hand, he is a man... so perhaps he won't be good enough".

Unfortunately for my own self-consistency, I actually agree with much of what these men, and various others are saying - Tim Hunt was persecuted to a disproportionate degree for a single stupid, ill-conceived, sexist "joke", and the manner in which it occurred does not reflect well on many of the users of social media. But being told I've over-reacted by yet another privileged, middle-aged, white man just sounds a bit too much like "calm down, dear, it's only a joke". And if there's one thing that's almost guaranteed to rile me, it's being patronised.

Which is probably why I am prepared to give more time to Athene Donald's comments on the issue. I really do recommend you go and read her post on the subject. Not only was she my favourite lecturer at university, she's also a female physics professor at one of the best universities in the world*, she writes very well and is very interesting on a range of issues. And she makes a fantastic list of suggestions of ways to actually combat sexism that go beyond writing humourous tweets. Just in case you don't go and read her blog, here is what she suggests:

"It would be wonderful if everyone who has posted some horrified comment about #huntgate or who has read some of the outpouring of media articles, committed to taking one action, just one, in their local organisation to counter the local brand of disadvantage that women may be facing. We should all be pro-active, not look the other way. Here’s an easy list to help people make that commitment. Everyone should be able to find one they are in a position to carry out.
  • Call out bad behaviour whenever and wherever you see it – in committees or in the street. Don’t leave women to be victimised;
  • Encourage women to dare, to take risks;
  • Act as a sponsor or mentor (if you are just setting out there will still always be people younger than you, including school children, for whom you can act);
  • Don’t let team members get away with demeaning behaviour, objectifying women or acting to exclude anyone;
  • Seek out and remove microinequities wherever you spot them;
  • Refuse to serve on single sex panels or at conferences without an appropriate level of female invited speakers;
  • Consider the imagery in your department and ensure it represents a diverse group of individuals;
  • Consider the daily working environment to see if anything inappropriate is lurking. If so, do something about it.
  • Demand/require mandatory unconscious bias training, in particular for appointment and promotion panels;
  • Call out teachers who tell girls they can’t/shouldn’t do maths, physics etc;
  • Don’t let the bold (male or female) monopolise the conversation in the classroom or the apparatus in the laboratory, at the expense of the timid (female or male);
  • Ask schools about their progression rates for girls into the traditionally male subjects at A level (or indeed, the traditionally female subjects for boys);
  • Nominate women for prizes, fellowships etc;
  • Tap women on the shoulder to encourage them to apply for opportunities they otherwise would be unaware of or feel they were not qualified for;
  • Move the dialogue on from part-time working equates to ‘isn’t serious’ to part-time working means balancing different demands;
  • Recognize the importance of family (and even love) for men and women;
  • Be prepared to be a visible role model;
  • Gather evidence, data and anecdote, to provide ammunition for management to change;
  • Listen and act if a woman starts hinting there are problems, don’t be dismissive because it makes you uncomfortable;
  • Think broadly when asked to make suggestions of names for any position or role."

* Yes, I'm biased. Wanna pick a fight about it?

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