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Tim Hunt's Sexist Remarks Reflect a Pervasive Attitude in STEM Fields

06/11/2015 12:32 EDT | Updated 06/11/2016 05:59 EDT
AFP via Getty Images
English biochemist, the Nobel-prize winner Sir Richard Timothy 'Tim' Hunt meets with the press at the Jozsef Attila Study and Information Centre of Szeged Sciences University in Szegede on March 22, 2012, during an international conference series held on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Hungarian Albert Szent-Gyorgyi’s Nobel Prize Award. The event be attended by nine Nobel Laureates and nearly 1000 scientific researchers from all over the world. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi received the nobel prize in Phisiology or Medecine in 1937 for discovering, among other things, vitamin C and the compontents and reactions of the citric acid cycle. AFP PHOTO / CSABA SEGESVARI (Photo credit should read CSABA SEGESVARI/AFP/Getty Images)

As a graduate student, I shared a very supportive, productive working relationship with my mentor. My mentor happened to be a man. In light of Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt's recent disparaging comments regarding collegial relationships with women in the lab, I can tell you two things with absolute certainty: I didn't fall in love with my supervisor, and my supervisor did not fall in love with me. Moreover, although I can't deny that tears were shed on a few rare occasions, these tears were no detriment to my success. And though Sir Tim may credit my crying to my two X chromosomes, I wouldn't doubt the fact that my male supervisor probably also shed a few tears during my tenure in the lab, especially in the early days when supervising me through my rookie mistakes was not exactly a walk in the park.

Crying, as an expression of emotion, does not represent a failure to recognize the line between a scientific criticism and a personal attack as implied by Sir Tim in his piteous and further incriminating apology. Of course, that crying and falling in love are not strictly female, heterosexual tendencies. These "difficulties with girls" as delineated by Sir Tim are universal aspects of the human condition.

My former mentor understood this and we were able to transition almost seamlessly from an intense discussion about how to better interpret my data to light-hearted banter regarding shared taste in music. At certain points in my training, I was the only female graduate student amongst several other male colleagues in our research group, and never once did I feel differential treatment at the hands of our mentor. Through my perhaps rose-coloured glasses, I am hopeful that the attitude of my former mentor represents the beginning of a new generation of scientists that understand that working relationships should not be defined along gender lines.

In spite of my own positive experiences, Tim Hunt's remarks come as no surprise as they reflect a very pervasive attitude in our community. Although I am, of course, disappointed, my initial reaction fell more along the lines of disbelief (and maybe even a little humour) that one of the most esteemed biologists in history doesn't have the wherewithal to recognize that a meeting for women in science journalism was maybe not the best place to air his opinions, as abominable as they may be, on this issue. In fact, as a self-professed chauvinist, I question why he was even at the conference in the first place. What really raised my ire, however, was his subsequent apology where Sir Tim demonstrated no understanding of why his remarks were offensive, and continued to paint a picture of women as distracting temptresses in the laboratory.

Tim Hunt and his views epitomize the historical dominance of men in the culture of STEM academic research. Women have been pushed to the side, in many cases not given credit for their discoveries, and expected to withstand the rampant sexism and discrimination. Evidence of how persistent and systemically ingrained this attitude has become continues to arise, even amongst women themselves. In a recent article posted on the Science Magazine website, Alice Huang, herself a very successful scientist, dispensed advice to a young female researcher wondering how to cope with the perceived unwelcome advances of a senior male colleague. Dr. Huang's recommendation: put up with it. She went on to say that it was likely that the male colleague likely couldn't help himself and as such, should be forgiven. Following substantial (and in my view, highly warranted) backlash on social media, this article was quickly removed.

Taking this incident together with the comments of Sir Tim, the present picture of the status of women in science looks bleak. Though I was relatively spared from the Tim Hunt brand of discrimination in my graduate training, and I now work for one of the most successful female cell biologists in the world, I can't help but feel an overwhelming sense of dismay and disappointment with the scientific community at large. Amongst my peers, the frustration is tangible. In spite of considerable efforts to raise the profile of women in science, we see signs of discrimination on a daily basis. Women are often passed over in favour of men at Q&A sessions following seminars. An equally qualified man is chosen over a woman to receive a prestigious fellowship. A male colleague dismisses, without consideration, an experimental suggestion put forward by a female scientist.

However, I maintain steadfast hope that things will improve. As a new generation moves into leadership positions, replacing the Tim Hunts of the world, I am optimistic that such sexist biases will vanish with the guilty parties that helped to perpetuate them into the 21st century. Fortunately, with the advent of social media as a tool to spread news, public opinion, and outrage, it is becoming increasingly difficult for high profile figures to get away with offensive, incendiary comments. The events of the past two days, and the subsequent resignation of Tim Hunt, have been a testament to this phenomenon.

Even five years ago, the near-instantaneous globe-spanning frenzy following Tim Hunt's comments would have been unimaginable. Twenty years ago, the story likely wouldn't have made it outside of the room the luncheon was held in, save word-of-mouth stories recounting yet another display of Tim Hunt's infamous chauvinism. Overall, the swift dissemination and response to the improper comments of Tim Hunt is encouraging. Whether those who could actually stand to learn from this event will take notice or not remains to be seen. As for me, I will do my best to keep my broken-hearted tears to myself between my experiments lest I should distract my male colleagues. I would hate to prove Tim Hunt right.

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