After Tim Hunt

It’s been a great week for women and science. Well. It didn’t start off that well…

On Tuesday at the World Conference of Science Journalists, the acclaimed Nobel Prize-winning Sir Tim Hunt FRS is reported to have 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.”

And these comments, although intended as a joke, fell flat. It’s easy to see why. What happened next was a barrage of pointed, sarcastic, ironic, witty and downright hilarious responses across social media. In case you missed it, the hashtag #DistractinglySexy has been flying around the internet and the story picked up by newsreels across the globe – BBC, CNN, Zoe Schnepp in the Huff PostThe main result, apart from a good laugh, has been to highlight the serious situation of women in science to the general public.

What’s the problem? The problem is that women are underrepresented, discriminated against and discouraged from doing science, whether that’s studying it at school, university, or continuing it as a career. Still today. In the 21st century. With equality and all that. The fact that Tim Hunt confirmed he meant what he said underlines the seriousness of the problem.

So what now? Tim Hunt’s since resigned from his honorary professorship at UCL, but one man’s downfall doesn’t mean a better world will automatically rise up. Zoe’s piece highlighted the fact that it doesn’t matter (and indeed can even be beneficial) if you fall in love in the lab. It’s OK if you cry. Scientists are human beings before they are scientists, and have emotions, desires and weaknesses just like everyone else.What we really need, instead of having gender-segregated labs (god forbid!), is support from the people around us. Support to be free from judgement, free to think for ourselves and free to do science.

Now, decent science (and with it new technology and innovation) has several barriers standing in its way – pressure to work, pressure to publish, bad management, bad training, lack of funding, personal negligence etc. And most, if not all, of these could be improved if individuals from the top down at universities and research institutes gave more attention to the needs of their co-workers, particularly women, rather than ignoring or laughing off their problems.

If us scientists are always looking over our shoulders worrying about what others think of us and how that will affect our next paper, funding application or job prospects, we’ll become more sensitive, secretive, competitive (in a bad way), irrational and less open to new ideas. We might even quit science. Instead, why not recognise that everyone works in different ways, everyone has bad days, everyone might need to take parental leave, everyone might go through ups and downs in their relationships (which could be within the lab as well as outside it) and support them through that? I don’t mean that your PhD advisor should be your psychologist, I just mean that the system should accommodate human nature – of all genders – better than it does at the moment. Support us – as scientists and human beings – and we’ll give back so much more.


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