June 2015

Tim Hunt, sexism and what we can do about it…

As I am reflecting on the entire story that followed from the Tim Hunt’s sexist comments at the women’s event in Korea, I keep thinking that what has transpired from the event might be very positive. First of all, the forum where he said it shows that he holds these believes so deeply that he even doesn’t care that the place where he decided to voice them is as inappropriate as one can imagine. I am confident there are many scientists, who are not as famous as Tim Hunt, who hold similar views. They might be afraid to speak up but I am sure they do a lot of harm to women in academia behind the scenes.

I am also thinking that because Tim Hunt was awarded a Nobel Prize, it does not mean that he should be an unquestionable role model for everybody in science. We have lots of examples, where successful scientists, writers, artists, etc. held views that few of us would share today. Tim Hunt is an expert in his field, he is also 72 – thus his career was formed when scientists held very different views than we hold now. I, however, think that instead of having this tweeter war (which is akin to calling each other names but not attempting to resolve the problem), we should have more opportunities to provide clear evidence that can debunk these sexists views. I think just labelling something politically incorrect does not make it wrong in the eyes of many people who hold these views… (what if political correctness rules change?). I think that to people like Tim Hunt (and he is unfortunately not alone) what should speak is hard core evidence and open dialogue. For example, women who have achieved a lot in science (Nobel Prize winners, Field’s medal winners, etc.) show that women can contribute and are contributing to science. Let these women speak. Showcase women’s contributions to science (as in the video below). Support undergraduate and graduate female students not only in life sciences, but in physical sciences, computer science, engineering. Help support men and women in having a successful career and family life.  Help people realize that science has room for diverse contributions and the history of science has shown that women have contributed a lot to it (my favourite hero is Lise Meitner).

People like Sheryl Sandberg and many others show that women do contribute to business and other fields of life. But they also show that society that prevents women (or other groups of people) from contributing is loosing a huge opportunity.  Showcase these examples, support women and build teams where men and women can work together in scientific or other pursuits. I think we should move beyond tweeter wars and have more dialogue and brainstorming about how to open opportunities for all members of our society.

Lastly, I kept thinking that Tim Hunt held these beliefs all along and by making him resign the problem will not go away. His colleagues who might have held similar views will be afraid to speak but to me covert discrimination and sexism is even scarier. There are many Tim Hunts out there (maybe not all of them are Nobel Prize winners), and changing views and attitudes takes time… We have to support any person who is interested in science and working in the lab – be it a woman, a man, or anybody else. The values of person’s contributions should not be judged based on their gender, race, etc. How long will it take us realize that and not only realize but also to believe in that?

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