Poor Tim Hunt. One day he was a distinguished Nobel Prize-winning scientist, the next he found himself in disgrace, derided all over the world as a sexist, forced to resign from his position at a university. And all because his attempts at humour in front of a roomful of Korean women scientists, telling them about the “trouble with girls” in science labs, backfired horribly.
Many people found his remarks so ridiculous that a new meme called #DistractinglySexy sprang up, with women scientists posting pictures of themselves at work. Others dismissed him as an old-school chauvinist out of touch with today’s societal attitudes. “He has shown that any competent woman could wipe the floor with a knighted Nobel scientist, leave him in a bucket overnight to soak and he’d still be an idiot next day,” said Susie Boniface, a columnist at Mirror Online.
But Dr Zoe Schnepp, in the Huffington Post, pointed out that it was about more than just Hunt: “It betrays a certain mindset and one that is particularly worrying when you consider that academic interview panels, funding boards and government advisory groups are often dominated by senior male scientists.”
Anjana Ahuja, a woman scientist writing in the Telegraph, says that the nature of science labs itself encourages such close-minded thinking. “Academics tend to hang out with other academics, who all operate in the same sort of environment… there isn’t much time for the outside world to intrude correctively.”
Wired.co.uk’s Katie Collins brought up an important point everyone was missing: “Workplace romances aren’t only for heterosexuals.” And the BBC’s Dr Anna Zecharia felt a conversation about the bigger picture was important: “We don’t need to demonise Sir Tim Hunt but if we shrug off his views as a generational quirk… we fail to acknowledge how deeply these attitudes are embedded in our workplaces and how they are still holding women back.”