She Blinded Me with Social Science


A scene from a Folger Shakespeare Theatre production of Susanna Centlivre’s 1705 play The Basset Table, in which a woman scientist must overcome obstacles (including being #distractinglysexy) to practice science and be with the man she loves (who is not Tim Hunt).

Recently, British scientist Sir Tim Hunt made an announcement about the “trouble” with women in scientific professions: “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.” Because the year is 2015 and not 1965, most people were not happy with Hunt’s assessment. In true Internet form, female scientists posted photos of themselves on social media doing lab and field work with the hashtag #distractinglysexy to mock the idea that their daily lives and the jobs they get paid to do are somehow actively detrimental to science and to the lives of men. Everyone involved got the joke: if you’re distracted by my lab coat and my dedication to my job, that is entirely your problem.

From a rhetorical standpoint, it’s easy to see why Hunt’s statement was so provocative. Presented in the second person, the statement is universal, implicating everyone in his own attitude. “You” means “all the individuals susceptible to falling in love with women” — let’s assume he means “men.” (The concept of a lab where gay or trans people work does not seem to fit his paradigm.) “They” means “women who work in scientific contexts.” So generally, he says, in every scientific setting, all men present fall in love with all women present, and vice versa. “When you criticize them” is a particularly telling phrase — would Hunt use the term “criticize” to describe his interactions with his male colleagues? Or would he use a more congenial term like “provide constructive, well-meaning feedback to”? The dependent clause “when you criticize them” carries a load of connotations about the gender power structure in his lab: “when” means such interactions happens frequently, as a matter of course (and, therefore, so does the crying). These are generalized assumptions and projected experiences that clearly do not apply to most of the population. And they make Hunt sound like a terrible boss.

It’s possible that a statement carrying the same basic meaning but presented in different terms would not have created such turmoil. For one, Hunt and others later claimed that he was speaking from personal experience. He could have said, “I’ve had romantic entanglements with my colleagues, and it caused problems for me professionally; additionally, one particular colleague seemed to be sensitive to my comments, but in the end I realized I had been needlessly rude, and my colleague learned the important career-related skill of not taking feedback personally.” When presented in first-person terms, a situation takes on the quality of being an anecdote, a learning experience to be shared with others as an informative measure. Even if you didn’t agree with Hunt’s behavior or his attitude, at least you could discuss his story more or less reasonably.

But as it was presented, in the second person, the statement is blatantly sexist and projects sexism onto male scientists everywhere. (The idea that everyone lacks the self-restraint to refrain from falling in love with while simultaneously criticizing their coworkers is as insulting to men as it is to women.) And of course it’s insulting to women everywhere, not just those who work in science. AMC only recently wrapped up its show Mad Men, which takes place decades ago and depicts just how sexist workplaces can be — and while some scenes strike modern readers as so distant from their own experiences as to be comical, others are not in high contrast at all. Women still face discrimination and are underrepresented in many fields. Just this week, a female friend of mine who holds a high-ranking job told me that an outsider to her office assumed she was an assistant simply because she shared an office with a man. After I graduated college not too many years ago, I was hired at a job where my salary was 23 percent less than that of a male colleague who had less experience and less education than I did. While the specifics of Hunt’s comments do involve factors specific to science, and specific to the issues women in science face, he should not be let off the hook for any reason. Anyone making disparaging comments about women in the workplace, even in so-called jest, has no place in the modern world. Women are still fighting for equality in pay and status at every turn in every profession, and statements like Hunt’s absolutely need to stop.

As it turns out, after it always does when the Internet gets upset, Hunt later admitted that he did make a mistake; he in fact erroneously generalized his personal experiences. He said that “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. . . . I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science.” Life as the irresistible Tim Hunt sounds very difficult. As for the crying, perhaps he’s an overly harsh colleague who doles out insults rather than constructive feedback; perhaps he doled out a particular nasty comment to a woman who was in a particularly vulnerable state of mind. (As many have written, women in science do face a lot of stress because of their gender, possible more so than do women in other professions. This does not make them weak; it makes them unfairly subjected to a particularly hostile environment for no legitimate reason. Societal prejudices should not create the same level of stress as working in a coal mine or as a bomb defuser.) Additionally, Hunt’s mistake may have been that he thought he was being cute, playing on an outdated stereotype to a room full of people whom he hoped would smile knowingly and see that he was joking (though secretly, they would acknowledge that there was a germ of truth in it). The audience might in fact have dismissed it as a passé statement by an aging man deserving of indulgence rather than correction.

However, because it is the modern era, the Internet took over. Though many important issues are not picked up en masse by users of the Internet, and many unimportant ones are, this one made the cut as being 1) so ridiculous that it warranted a response and 2) so easily responded to in a way that fits the mold of the Internet perfectly, in hashtags and photos. Women, by the thousands, posted photos of themselves in lab coats and beekeeper suits, digging in soil and operating complex machinery. This is undoubtedly a good Internet thing, as far as Internet things go. Any chance the public gets to witness science in action is probably beneficial, as it allows them to peek behind the curtain at what goes on with these mysterious “researchers” they read about in the news. One does wonder if the reaction would have been the same if a man in power had insulted women with less time and fewer resources to post snarky photos: blue-collar workers, people who work double shifts, anyone who would fear for her job if she posted photos of herself making any kind of political statement. Still, let us call #distractinglysexy a good Internet thing.

But if it stays merely a good Internet thing, it will produce no real consequences. Athene Donald at Time magazine made the point that simply calling Hunt a sexist (and, implicitly, that mocking him by posting photos and hashtags on social media) doesn’t do much good. Donald’s defense of Hunt as only trying to present evidence from his own life and in fact exhibiting a history of offering support of women “where he could” is of no consequence: if you’re genuinely not a sexist person, you will not make sexist comments, even in jest and even using personal experience as a justification for generalization, in a public forum in the year 2015. But Donald is right that a single hashtag campaign isn’t enough (I may be inferring a larger point that she doesn’t explicitly make). It’s about as likely to change opinions of women in science as hashtag-based anti-rape and anti-police-brutality campaigns are: while well-intentioned and enlightening for those paying attention, they will mostly preach to the choir residing inside the echo chamber. Real change will happen when young women feel no stigma attached to their chosen careers, scientific or otherwise. When they can be told that enjoying science is an important, perfectly legitimate, and even feminine thing to do. When they can feel encouraged to engage in complex discourse without having to apologize, duck their heads, and downplay or outright repress their interests and passions. When they shouldn’t be forced to say they are “overreacting” to sexist comments that are actually no big deal, it’s fine, it’s actually a really funny joke, we’re totally in on it,
keep going.

Even more ink has since been spilled on the tendency of the media to take things out of context. A single sound bite taken wildly out of context can do irreparable damage to a career, but this is not one of those cases. Not unless Hunt had been punished for saying, “Check out my terrible, sexist colleagues who say things like, quote, ‘the trouble with women in science is that you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry,’ end quote. What terrible and sexist colleagues I have.” Nor is this a problem of “academic freedom,” as some have said. While making a discriminatory claim is not always cause for dismissal or other punishment, the issue here is not freedom. An institution has the right to dismiss an individual for not upholding the values it wants to uphold. If Hunt had been maligned for wanting to discuss that he observed the phenomenon of women in science being assumed to have certain characteristics, that would be a violation of academic freedom, just as it would be a violation to punish a history teacher for presenting the facts of slavery and the lingering effects of racism. The issue of “academic freedom” should be about the importance of presenting students and audiences with a full range of data and opinions, giving them the tools they need to engage in critical thinking, and letting them make up their own minds. Furthermore, while slips of the tongue may sometimes come out sounding ignorant or mean-spirited in a way that was never meant, making such an ill-conceived point in prepared remarks in front of a room full of intelligent people with influence in the media deserves little to no sympathy.

One day,“women in science” may graduate to being “people in science.” But for that to happen, moments like Hunt’s unfortunate outbreak will need to cease entirely. May this be the last one.

One comment

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