Defending Tim Hunt: a throwaway remark that cost a Nobel laureate his job

A disparaging result of the #distractinglysexy hashtag

A disparaging result of the #distractinglysexy hashtag

“Let me tell you about the trouble with girls” was the beginning of the end for Nobel laureate Tim Hunt. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!” This comment, said in a jovial manner, would have been quickly dismissed as a mild form of sexism had it not been uttered by a leading figure defending women in science. Instead, it was interpreted as a backwards and hypocritical remark.

What people forget is the fact that Twitter and other social media platforms are very quick to see the worst in people. Social media doesn’t dole out second chances. Once you’ve made a comment, it’s there forever, stored on the Internet’s never-ending labyrinth of databases. And academic Connie St. Louis ensured that Hunt’s comments were indelible when she posted the life-destroying tweet on Twitter. Her comments caused a maelstrom of scandal, with outraged twitter users re-tweeting her statement. Soon began a tirade of #distractinglysexy hashtags, accompanied by pictures of women’s success in science.

The weird part is that the only record of what Hunt said are the words of Connie St. Louis, despite the fact that Hunt was addressing a whole room full of journalists. This means that as it stands, it’s Hunt’s word against St Louis’, and who are we more likely to believe? A Nobel laureate who thinks we are still in Victorian times, or a female academic trying to defend her sex against a diatribe of chauvinist comments? I think you know the answer.

Hunt’s side of the story has been widely forgotten, as well as the rest of the speech. A leaked report following the investigation implies that Hunt spoke in a self-deprecating manner, following the comments with a more solemn tone: “now, seriously… science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

Does this honestly sound like a man intent on ruining the careers of women in one fell swoop, women he has fought to protect throughout his career?

The main troubles with his comments are due to the fact that, on paper (or computer screens), his comments sound sexist. They are sexist. But the impersonal tone of a tweet combined with the mob rule of social media meant that Tim Hunt never really stood a chance. Once Connie St. Louis clicked “tweet”, she had struck the match that lit the greedy, career-devastating wildfire.

It is interesting to note that it was a woman who tweeted the comments. I mean, of course it was. Feminism is such a pervasive force nowadays that feminists jump at any opportunity to clutch at straws and claim they are the victims of sexism. You need only to look at Tim Hunt’s work at helping women in science to disagree with her. Don’t get me wrong, of course women are still very much the targets of sexism, but they are also quick to leap at any opportunity to accuse. It’s a form of self-defence. (I myself am a feminist- I am a woman, after all- before you get on your high horse and accuse me of being prejudice!). We need to assess the situation from all angles, and remove our black and white tinted glasses.

What certainly did not help Hunt’s case was the fact that he never officially retracted his comments. In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Hunt is recorded saying he was “really” sorry for any offense caused, but that he still stood by his initial sentiment. This caused a whole new wave of controversy. Did that mean that he acknowledged that his remarks were sexist, and that he stood by them?

I disagree. Hunt maintains that continuous flirtations are “very disruptive to the sciences”. And remember that science aims at truth. If you actually take a moment to reflect upon these comments, Hunt never says that women are in any way inferior to men. He is not being prejudice, he is merely stating that they are a distraction to him.

Take the hypothetical scenario where a leading women scientist makes the following speech:

“the trouble with men is that you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and they can never admit they’re wrong. Even worse, they take hours getting ready in the morning!”

Surely this would have been met by laughter, not horror, and would certainly not have resulted in a Nobel laureate being forced to resign. Perhaps this too could be classed as sexism, but the problem arises from the fact that women are much more sensitive than men (forgive me if I’m being sexist!), caused, understandably, by a tumultuous history of sexism.

The real tragedy is that Tim Hunt was forced to resign, not that he was branded a sexist pig. After all, Nigel Farage argued the women were “worth less” to employers, yet his party have begged him to stay as leader. But that’s politics for you, eh?

Note: Hunt was forced to resign from a number of honorary positions, including ones at UCL, the European Research Council and the Royal Society.


Read it on Palatinate here. 

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