Two men who are celebrated as some of the smartest people in the world have made two very telling statements.
Tim Hunt, Nobel prize-winning biochemist said, "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry."
Stephen Hawking, interpreter of black holes and other wonders of the universe, said that women "are a complete mystery."
At first glance, this can seem amusing. Imagine one half of a species not being able to understand the other half -- that's funny. And the smarter the man who makes such a comment, the funnier it's supposed to be.
But at second glance, it's actually rather disturbing.
Looking at Hunt's statement, he first refers to women as "girls" -- an immature state. In reality, there are few girls -- women under the age 18 -- who work in labs. Most female researchers are highly qualified and fully adult.
Then Hunt complains that men and women fall in love with each other. News flash: this is spectacularly true and in fact has been happening for some time now. Furthermore, it happens not only in labs but in most life situations where men and women are together, including offices, factories and even places of worship. Parents may wish that it didn't happen in colleges so their kids could focus on their studies. Patients may wish that it didn't happen in hospitals so doctors could focus on their care. The army may wish it could eradicate love among its staff but it can't. Love is not only unavoidable, it also makes the world go round. Love may be a source of disruption but it's also a source of inspiration.
Finally Hunt claims that women cry when criticized. Some may, others may not. But since when has crying become an unacceptable way of showing emotion? Is it wrong to cry because many men don't?
Hunt made his statement in support of his appeal for single-sex labs. But what about the possibility of same-sex attractions? This love thing is insidious.
Hawking's statement that women are a mystery could be a self-deprecating remark -- only it's not. He's not laughing at himself or indicating that he's in some way lacking in intellect, but rather that women are; women are not understandable, otherwise surely he would be able to understand them. Simone de Beauvoir may have shed light on women as the "second sex," but such remarks seem to suggest that women are also the second species: mysterious, irrational, unknowable -- homo fem-aliens.
Imagine if May-Britt Moser, the neuroscientist who recently shared a Nobel Prize for medicine with her husband, were to say, "Gosh, I can understand the intricacies of the brain's positioning system but I don't have a clue how a man works! Yuk, yuk."
I think many women would respond with "Why not?" Men don't have to understand how women work, or at least can claim not to, and they can still be successful and respected in their fields. Women don't have the luxury to be ignorant of how the other half of the species thinks -- if they are, it would be to their detriment. In everything from the home to the workplace to fashion, women have to live up to standards set by men, including it seems where and when to cry.
Men making such statements, even in jest, benefit two groups. The supersmart man saying it feels like he's one of the boys, gaining perhaps a long-desired acceptance into an all-male social club. The regular guys hearing it can use it to support and rationalize their own perspective; "Jeez, if Hawking can't understand women, how the heck do you expect me to?" And therefore the corollary: why bother trying.
Such statements however don't benefit women. Their subtext is "women are irrational" and this is a very dangerous supposition. It implies that women's thoughts are illogical, their actions are hijacked by their passions, they don't say what they mean, and furthermore they are fickle. This in turn implies that they are not committed to their work and are therefore less proficient.
If women are deemed irrational, their contributions can be discredited, which would be a big loss in numerous fields of human endeavor. If women are deemed irrational, their views become invalid; they can be belittled and ignored. And when this line of thinking is used to rationalize that "no means yes," then we're getting into criminal territory.
There should no place in today's world for such thoughts or statements. However, for a variety of reasons, Hawking's comment seems to have been politely overlooked. And perhaps to make up for that, Hunt has been ferociously dumped on by the internet and the media. While zero tolerance is understandable, selective crucification is not. Demanding the resignation of a brilliant scientist with a lifetime of contribution to his field is not right nor the answer; after all, Hunt was just vocalizing something that seems to be a common male sentiment in popular culture. The answer lies in busting the myth of the mysterious (read "irrational") woman and seeing her as a contributing individual. And then maybe these so-called jokes won't seem funny to anyone anymore.
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