Tim Hunt recently made some rather ill-advised comments regarding women in science, and caused quite the Twitter storm. So much so, in fact, that it was all over the news – every scientist I know (many) has an opinion.
Quite a few are, understandably, rather angry. Collectively, we work very hard to minimize systematic barriers to entry to women. We strive to undo what centuries of poor attitudes have left us with – a profession in dire need of half the population, who’ve been institutionally pushed away. It’s an indictment of the public perception of science that the gender representation at PhD level and higher is so awful.
In that context, Tim Hunt’s comments are yet another example of behaviour which ruins our profession, and it should be treated as such. Not only were the comments patently indefensible, they were made on an international stage in front of a large audience. They have caused tangible harm to science’s image, and contribute to the challenges which our female colleagues endure. For this, Tim Hunt must obviously be held to account.
Tim Hunt has suffered a lot for this, and the suffering of his family is disproportionate. Not only has he endured a Twitter outrage (probably disproportionate on its own), he was forced to resign immediately from his post at UCL, and has been ejected from all of his advisory positions. He and his wife (a prominent scientist, and a feminist) are enduring the press camped outside their door.
This is extreme punishment; the court of public opinion has been swift and uncaring.
So; does Tim Hunt deserve sympathy? Some people in the community think not; “Sympathy Level Zero”, as one put it. I disagree – he’s human as much as any of us, and it’s unreasonable (“sociopathic”, as my friend put it) to deny him sympathy at all. People have a tendency to conflate individual cases of poor judgement with plain old bad character, and it’d be fair to say that the former is probably true for Tim Hunt. He does not deserve his punishment.
On the other hand, the man is an adult and therefore must face the societal consequences of his actions. “I can’t believe I said that” has never been either an excuse, nor an adequate apology, and it is unlikely to make amends. Feeling sympathetic towards Hunt doesn’t make him in the right, either, and it’s worth remembering that.
So, call me “conflicted” over the Tim Hunt affair. I wish him well, for whatever that’s worth.
In the mean time, we should be talking more about the female scientists which influenced Hunt’s own career, and thinking more about how to change people’s attitudes before such events occur.
Because, really, it would be nice if we got something positive out of this sorry state of affairs.