50 shades of sexism
I didn’t think that the Tim Hunt controversy would still be going on, and assumed I had missed my moment. But the papers are still full of it … and there are still a few things to be said. So here goes.
First, lets be clear, I have never met Tim Hunt, and I think that his remarks were a combination of stupid, wrong and, to some people, seriously offensive. But whether the outcry in social and other media was proportionate I am not so sure. The idiot ended up giving a very ill-advised recorded interview late at night to the Today Programme, which made matters worse; he has since been door-stepped, and his wife’s first husband has been tracked down. And he has been "shed" from a number of scientific roles, including his Honorary Chair at UCL. Does this really make sense?
This 72-year-old guy made a very big error and probably has some antediluvian views on gender. I would like to smack his bottom, give him a piece of my mind and keep a very close watch on him if he is grading applications. But I wouldn’t drum him out of the academic town.
Besides, a quick campaign against an individual can be an easy deflection from the real underlying issues, about women’s chances in science or in the academy more generally. It is much simpler to take Hunt down a peg or two (deservedly maybe), than to address the bigger political questions of women’s scientific careers (question which need much more thought, effort and probably cash ).
In any case, I have come to think that those old blokes who actually give voice their silly prejudices are a bit easier to deal with/argue against than those who hold much the same views but know better than to utter them out loud (and that sort exists, believe me). Carefully hidden prejudice is the worst of all.
But there are a few more issues too that have been coming out between the cracks.
First: the use of the word “sexist”. Hunt’s critics have accused him of being “a sexist”; his defenders have equally vehemently said “Tim’s not a sexist”. It is if you were either one thing or the other -- when presumably most people are somewhere on the spectrum between the two. I can hardly believe that “Tim is not a sexist” in any blanket sense, but it all depends what form it takes, how it is mitigated and in what particular respects (and I am sure there are some) he is not. It would make life a lot simpler if we divided neatly into two – sexist and non-sexist – but I fear we don’t. Sexism is an accusation not an analytical category.
Second: wit. I thought that some of the social media comments hit the right note. The hashtag #distractinglybeautiful was spot on. But in general a bit more ridicule and a little less high-horse might have been more effective. I was planning a little outburst in which I reflected on how terribly awkward it was working with men because they always believed you fancied them when you didn’t, and because they always bottled up their feelings and didn't “share”.
(Of course, the fact that that would have been an obvious joke neatly shows that “standard behaviour” in the context of a lab is regularly assumed to have stereotypical male characteristics; that’s part of the point. Why not cry for heaven’s sake? Is there something inherently worse about it than shouting or bottling up?)
Third: University College London. I have not been able to discover what his Honorary Professorship there meant exactly, but it cant have been a paid or a contractual position, else they wouldn’t have been able just to get rid of him instantly. To an outsider, it looks as if he was convenient to have on their masthead when he was a distinguished Nobel Laureate; when he looked as if he was a bit of a liability they washed their hands as quickly as they could. If so, it seems a bit instrumentalist to me and even rather unfair.
Or, at least, maybe they should have investigated his views more carefully before they gave him the honour in the first place. If these are his views (and inevitably that is difficult to tell), I cant imagine that this is the first time he has thought or voiced them.