06/12/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/11/2016 05:59 EDT

Tim Hunt, sexism and science: The real 'trouble with girls' in labs

A Nobel Prize-winning British scientist shocked the world this week by claiming that "girls" harm science and mixed-gender labs are disruptive.

Tim Hunt's speech proved sexism is alive and well in science, but the problem is generally more subtle and insidious than that example, Canadian scientists say.

Hunt said (jokingly, he claims) that when women work alongside men in labs "you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry." He later apologized for causing offence and resigned from his honorary post at University College London.

But Hunt, a biochemist who was a joint recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, stood by his claim that mixed-gender labs are disruptive.

Allison Sekuler, a neuroscientist who is the associate vice-president and dean of graduate studies at McMaster University, is among the thousands of people who made fun of Hunt's remarks on Twitter (including may featuring photos and the playful hashtag #distractinglysexy).

"He's not the only one out there with these views." While they don't reflect most scientists' views, they do show sexism in science still exists, she said.

For example, she's heard colleagues much younger than Hunt say they prefer not to take graduate students who are women because they could get pregnant, even though that has no impact on their ability to contribute to science.

Women in science must sometimes take the trouble to avoid sexist senior scientists as they progress through their science education and training.

"For me, honestly, I navigated my career to avoid people like him [Hunt]," says Molly Shoichet, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Toronto who holds a Canada Research Chair in tissue engineering and was a recent winner of the L'Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science Award.

She chose to work and study in labs where there were other women and once turned down an opportunity to work at a company where she would have been the first woman PhD scientist.

Power of diversity

Now, she supervises a lab of 30 people – half men and half women – and tries to maintain as much diversity as possible in every way, including where they come from and what they studied.

"I don't agree with having single-sex labs… I've deliberately tried to mix it up," she said, adding that you need to take advantage of people with as many different perspectives as possible to tackle big scientific problems.

But she says the public reaction to Hunt's remarks highlights their rarity.

"What is so shocking is to have someone educated in…the Western world to have those opinions vocalized," she said.

More often, sexism in science is far more subtle, said all the scientists interviewed for this article.

For example, recent studies reported that:

- Women in science got fewer and smaller grants in the U.K. than men in the same field

- Science professors, both male and female, were far more likely to judge an undergraduate student suitable for a job as a lab manager and offer a higher salary if the student was named John than Jennifer.

Subtle sexism

That kind of "systemic" sexism is far harder to fight, says Rachel Chang, Canada Research Chair in Atmospheric Science and one of only two women faculty in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University."You can't just say to somebody specifically, 'You can't say these sexist comments."

Rosie Redfield, a microbiology professor at the University of British Columbia, said when your grant application gets rejected, or when a point you made gets ignored until it is repeated by a male colleague, it's hard to tell whether sexism played a role or you just didn't do a good enough job.

"Each little effect is so small you can't even measure it, and yet altogether, it adds up to massive bias," said Redfield, who has an equal number of men and women in her own lab.

"It's not like it's only men who have this subconscious bias — we all have it," she said, noting that most people, male or female, think of a scientist as a man in a white lab coat.

Sekuler says universities are working hard to address that kind of bias, which tends to reduce the number of women who receive prestigious forms of recognition like research chairs.

"Everyone says they want to hire the best person, they want to publish the best papers, but they're coming to their evaluation process with a certain mindset about what 'best' means," she said.

Overcoming that mindset may mean reminding people to look beyond the people they normally interact with or looking slightly outside their own discipline.

Redfield doesn't think science is unusually sexist compared to other fields.

"I think labs are generally very egalitarian environments and you're mostly judged on what you do," she said. There are labs run by professors that she wouldn't recommend to female graduate students, but they are rare, she added.

As for Hunt's complaints about the distraction of lab romances — or the idea that women are to blame — she has no sympathy.

Romances will happen wherever people interact, she says.

"If you can't deal with that, then you shouldn't be supervising human beings at all."