After the shocking news that Sir Tim Hunt, esteemed scientist and Nobel prize winner, made completely sexist
comments about female scientists at a conference in South Korea, Rebecca Hoard further discusses the problem of gender inequality in STEM subjects.
Why are only 13% of STEM workers female? Well according to Milo Yiannopoulos, speaking during a Sky News
debate. “Women don’t actually want to go into sciences, on the whole,”. And so, the furore around sexism in
science continues, weeks after the Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt talked about “the trouble with girls”.
“Three things happen when they [women] are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”
Sir Tim Hunt, followed by an outrageous suggestion of segregated laboratories.
Public and media outcry was immediate. The Royal Society, of which Hunt is a fellow, quickly tweeted “Tim Hunt’s comments don’t reflect our views”. They officially stated: “Too many talented individuals do not fulfil their scientific potential because of issues such as gender and the Society is committed to helping to put this right.”
Many scientists showed their support using selfies and the hashtag #distractinglysexy to ridicule Tim Hunt’s comments. Stephanie Evans wore a cleanroom suit to pose with her satellite integration work. @drtanthony captioned herself wearing surgical accessories as “I did an entire liver transplant without crying or falling in love”. Men joined in too, showing sarcastic warning labels of “mixed gender laboratory space” (@FliesInLakes). I’m not
entirely sure of what Tim Hunt was suggesting, but I certainly don’t feel at my most
tantalising in lab attire of goggles, a long white lab coat, and sensible shoes.
Hunt is not without his defendants, including – of course – Katie Hopkins who compared the attacks against Hunt’s argument to the militant group ISIS’ stance of “conform or get out”.
Professors Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins also branded the backlash as “disproportionate” and “a baying witch hunt”. Boris Johnson on the other hand, said that discussing differences between genders should not be an
offence. He pointed out the reverse discrepancies in British science, showing that there are more female university entrants than male, and that they achieve, on average, better grades at GCSE, A-level and degree level.
So what’s with the gender imbalances? This is a tricky one. Boris Johnson in his ‘allegedly gender discriminatory’ Telegraph article, may be correct that they “are nothing to do with innate ability, and everything to do with social and cultural expectations.” But realistically, we’re basically not sure- but we do know that it is necessary to
investigate gender parity and equality.
Gender parity (same amount) is not synonymous with gender
equality (same treatment). If 50% of researchers are male, and 50% are female, gender parity has been reached. But if the women have to work twice as hard to get there, or the men got a shortcut, gender equality has not been reached. (For a better explanation on this
topic, see R.Subrahmanian’s paper “Gender Equality in Education”.)
But of course, it works both ways. If there’s comparatively less of one group of people, it does not necessarily mean that they’re being treated unequally. And in the unfortunate case of scientists, we know that men and women are NOT treated equally.
The Guardian recently reported that a manuscript was described as unpublishable when submitted by a female postdoc in London, but was commended when using the name of a male co-author . Subconscious gender bias is the main gender inequality issue of our times, as a job application from a man is significantly more likely to be
chosen than one from a woman – even when the resumé information is identical (see “John rather than Jennifer” for more information on this).
Sir Tim Hunt’s suggestion that he has no further role in science is a huge loss considering his achievements in cancer research.
Cambridge professors Ottoline Leyser and Dame Athene Donale have said that the angry “fingerpointing” should come to an end,
allowing the improvement of inequality to be the focus.
Sadly, anger isn’t a surprising reaction when women have been
treated unfairly for hundreds of years and whilst Hunt’s comments may have been intended as lighthearted, it was like throwing salt on a wound. Ridiculing our emotions shows disregard for our passion for the subject, and the pressure under which we operate.
But the real dagger thrown by Sir Hunt was the placement of blame onto women;
that women are the distraction and that women are the reason why male scientists struggle to get things done. Sounds a lot like schoolgirls not being allowed to wear strappy tops in school. Sounds a lot like blaming rape victims for wearing too short a skirt. We are just existing, Tim Hunt. Getting sidelined by our sexy goggles is not our fault, it is your own.
In the end, it is crucial to move on from this and turn Hunt’s comments into a positive. He showed “conclusively that sexism in science is not yesterday’s problem.” Every discussion about gender inequality is important and I, for one, have learnt so much. Awareness is always the first step towards action.
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