You may have read about Dr. Tim Hunt’s comments, made last week during a lunchtime speech at a conference for women in science in South Korea. (If not, you can catch up here, here, and here.) His comment was:
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Dr. Hunt said, “I stood up and went mad…I was very nervous and a bit confused but, yes, I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way.”
Clearly Dr. Hunt’s statement during the conference in Korea was stupid, not funny, and potentially damaging for women scientists. BPC promotes the exact opposite message—my outlook is that science is a field in which women can thrive and contribute, while being themselves. Women took to social media to prove this point, using the hashtag #distractinglysexy, amongst others, and posted photos of themselves at work in the lab or out in the field. I loved seeing women promoting science and sharing their work online. There was a palpable sense of community.
However, despite my disagreement with Dr. Hunt’s statement, I began to think that some aspects of social media’s reaction to his words were overblown. (For example, the media drew Dr. Hunt’s wife and leader in the field of immunology, Mary Collins, into the storm.)
Think about your own life: how many off-hand comments have you made and later regretted? I certainly know there are things I wish I could take back. Often it is something we think will get a laugh in the moment. But, lucky for us, our stupid comments were not made at an international conference, picked up by social media, and turned into a Twitter storm of rage. Our partners, colleagues, and life’s work were not called into question.
I do not support or agree with Dr. Hunt’s words. However, I am advocating for compassion towards others in a world that can be harsh and insensitive, particularly through social media. Although the written and spoken word is important (I sure hope so, I write a blog), maybe we should pay greater attention to a person’s actions, instead of sentiments reduced to 140 characters.
Dr. Hunt collaborated with countless female scientists throughout his career, including some of the most prominent in his field: Joan Ruderman, Katherine Swenson, and Kathy Gould. This fact makes his comments all the more confusing. If he actually believed what he said, why are so many of his collaborators and students women? Perhaps I am too optimistic, but in this situation, I choose to believe in Dr. Hunt’s actions throughout his career and not a single off-hand insult.
Also in The Guardian this week, was an excerpt from a longer article that I strongly believe in:
“Hunt has become a symbol of a widespread problem; criticising him may galvanise feminists, but unless we project positive attitudes about women, sexism will remain the status quo. At the moment, stock pictures of teenagers holding test tubes, or maybe a picture of Rosalind Franklin, are our best representations of “women in science”. Women are either anonymous, or have only made headlines because they were ignored. This, of course, has to change, and not just in science.”
These words from Guardian author Helen Cahill express the idea behind Beta Pleated Chic and something I think is important. Focusing attention on a single man who made a thoughtless comment will not improve sexism in science and engineering. Instead, celebrating women that are doing exciting and significant work to improve the world will change the image and environment of STEM. And, guess what? There are a ton of these women out there.
I hope you continue to hang with us here, because that’s our plan.