How Firing Tim Hunt Fixed Sexism in Science

UCL have yet again been at the forefront of scientific discovery. This time, senior academics have realised that if you force the resignation of one self-declared chauvinist who has, not for the first time, indicated that he believes men and women are different in science, then you can eradicate sexism in science. At least, that’s what it looks like they believe. Because all they seem to have done is accept his (forced) resignation, which is of course exactly what we female scientists (henceforce: scientistas) wanted: a symbolic decapitation of an honorary figurehead. Thanks guys, that’s great! Problem solved, back to the equal opportunities lab in our #distractinglysexy kit.

To be fair, they are doing their best. UCL is bronze holder of the Athena SWAN award which recognises and celebrates good employment practices for women working in higher education and research. It aims to assist the recruitment, retention and promotion of women in STEMM and promote good practice. Yay for third place; progress right? (FYI: they’ve been bronze since 2006).

But asking him to resign (as did the European Research Council, and the Royal Society) was just a knee-jerk reaction that has drawn more criticism than praise from both sides, it even led Jonathan Dimbleby to resign from UCL in protest. Why? Because what did it actually achieve? Sexism and gender imbalance are still real issues in science. And the hoops a young woman would have to jump through before even coming into contact with someone like Tim Hunt need more urgent addressing then the past-their-sell-by-date ramblings of a ‘dinosaur’.

Let’s look at some facts (like a scientist if you will). Tim Hunt’s speech was delivered in S Korea at a luncheon sponsored by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations, who were appalled by his speech and demanded an apology, because in Korea women only represent 17% of those working in Science Research (which is less than the Asian average of 20%) and he wasn’t helping things. Does this figure shock you? Or make you feel superior that, at least, we aren’t that bad? Sorry, but in the UK women actually only represent 12.8% of those employed in STEM occupations, and that drops to 10% if we remove health-related occupations. In the USA, women make up 48% of the workforce but only 24% of STEM workers. And if you think we’re all playing a similar game, compare those figures to Myanmar (86%), Philippines (52%) and Thailand (51%). Clearly the issue isn’t one man at the top sniper-shooting promising scientistas as they climb the STEM ladder, it’s getting them on the ladder in the first place (although knowing there’s a sniper doesn’t help).

Girls in the UK aren’t being encouraged to study science beyond GCSE, in fact, according to a report published last year, half of the UK’s co-ed secondary schools don’t have a single girl studying physics at A-level. Out of 72,000 that received an A*-C grade in physics, only 10% went on to take it at A-level. Well, that’s not surprising, I hear you mutter, everyone knows girls do better in single-sex educational environments. And you’re not wrong. Research shows that girls that go to single-sex schools experience a less gender-stereotyped development and engage in more healthy competition and risk-taking behaviour (all the better to compete in the competitive STEM marketplace after graduation). They demonstrate a higher take-up of STEM subjects at A-level and tend to achieve better grades than their co-educated counterparts. Knowing this, one wonders why there was such an outcry when Tim Hunt dared to suggest single-sex labs? There seems to be a lot of evidence in favour of them being beneficial to women.

In addition, we must be careful not to confuse disproportionate representation with sexism. Sexism, the direct discrimination against someone for their sex, can happen in any profession, and science is no different. Take the example of the joint-authored paper of Drs Ingleby and Head (both scientistas) submitted for peer review to the PLOS ONE journal. Among other chauvenist comments, the reviewer recommended that the paper would have a better chance of publication if it had “one or two male biologists” give it a once-over or “better yet”, act as co-authors. Clearly sexism at its finest. However, Tim Hunt’s response to the following question in an interview for Lab Times:

Lab Times: “In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?”

Tim Hunt: I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

is not the machination of a patriarchal overlord trying to dismiss out-of-hand a genuine issue of inequality. He asks, quite legitimately: Why should there be proportional representation in science? Perhaps before fighting for something so strongly, we should understand why it would enhance our lives? One of the few bastions left to us in this post-politically correct world that we live in is the knowledge that science is empirical, not subjective or speculative. Where is the set of experiments, peer-reviewed and reproduceable, that disproves the theory that men are better at science? Because if all we are aiming for is proportional representation of women to men (although according to the WISE campaign that promotes women in science, technology and engineering ‘critical mass’ would be reached at 30% scientistas, whatever that means) then why aren’t we fighting the same fight in careers such as midwifery? Currently there are only 103 men working in the field compared with 31,189 women, and there are quite strong feelings from some within the profession that that number is still too high (muscling in on our jobs are they?). Well, it’s because, by definition, sexism isn’t equal, oh the irony.

But none of that matters now, because UCL has solved everything by letting Tim Hunt go. Let’s ignore the fact that a petition to have him reinstated has over 3800 signatures (compared to the 295 for the petition to have a female president of the Royal Society), let’s ignore the fact that UCL has also never had a female provost. Let’s not even ask UCL or the ERC or the Royal Society if they plan on filling the space vacated by Dr. Hunt with a woman, because now that they’ve gotten rid of him there is no more sexism in science; and we can all live happily ever after.

Ria Lina has a BSc in Experimental Pathology from St. Andrews University, a masters in Forensic Science from London Southbank University and a PhD in Viral Bioinformatics from UCL.

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