Sympathy Levels Failing, Cap’n!

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.

About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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3 Responses to Sympathy Levels Failing, Cap’n!

  1. Talarian says:

    I think it’s appropriate that he resigned his position given it comes with possible influence where his attitude could negatively affect female employees of the University.

    Let’s put it this way, if a manager of a developer team said, “Women are a distraction!” then one would expect that attitude to affect the manager’s hiring and evaluation processes. If a manager were to say that, the first step in the corporate world would generally be HR coming down on them and getting them to fix their attitude. If the attitude still manifested itself, the second step would be to remove them.

    In fact, you can see this sort of thing in action recently with some comments Microsoft’s current CEO, Satya Nadella, made at a Women in Tech conference:

    Here’s the difference between Nadella’s and Hunt’s responses: Nadella legitimately apologized, figured out where he went off the rails, corrected himself, and moved on. Tim Hunt’s apology boiled down to “I’m sorry I got caught.”

    That being said, the witch hunt that continues over it? That should be stopped. Hunt’s family does not deserve this level of scrutiny. The man goofed big time, paid for it commensurately, and that should be it, end of the line. Though, the #distractinglysexy hashtag was pretty awesome.

    • stoove says:

      I think you’re broadly right, and the main objection to his resignation was that it was forced before he even had time to properly respond, or to discuss it with his employers.

      Another question is whether he actually has been prejudiced in practice on grant committees, and so on. His friends claim that he’s always been supportive of women, but that’s somewhat open to interpretation.

      In the end, I think that there should have been more “due process” on UCL’s part, and he’s certainly suffered enough. One of the things I love about #DistractinglySexy is that it’s a positive message we’re getting out of it – more visibility for female scientists. That’s good.

  2. Cryophage says:

    I’m not sure if you’re still following this story, but a video of the speech in question has since been found, showing that the comments were in fact tongue-in-cheek humor and that the vast majority of the audience saw it as such (or at least chose to laugh politely.) The video in question is unfortunately behind a paywall, but in it’s place I have a public apology from one of Time Hunt’s more vocal detractors, Brianna Wu:

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