Tim Hunt, noted misogynist and self-admitted "chauvinist" (and Nobel Prize Winner), recently told the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul that: “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.”
Before you ask, yes, he made those comments in front of a large group of women scientists and journalists, because, why not.
Hahaha! Such a funny off-the-cuff remark! Astoundingly, the conference attendees were not amused. Evidently his comments didn't turn out to be the laugh riot he was expecting, and journalist Connie St. Louis (there in her capacity as, you know, a science reporter) promptly reported on what he'd said.
This is the part where the women scientists of Twitter — of whom, it turns out, there are many, in a shocking development given that one presumes they're too busy crying to start social media accounts — decided to go on the offense. Given the repeated problems with sexism in STEM, and the grain of dark humor that runs deep in the hearts of many women in science, it shouldn't come as a surprise that a hashtag quickly developed, and went viral.
#distractinglysexy has taken over the Internet, and it is beautiful.
It's not just contemporary scientists who are bringing all the boys to the yard and then crying about it.
Sexism in STEM is a big problem, and Hunt's response indicated that he didn't really understand the scope of it and why so many women were so very angry with his comments. First he said that he was sorry if anyone was offended, because, you know. He also added that making those comments was "a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists," which sounds like a classic case of "whoops, didn't intend for that to get out!"
But, my friends, never fear:
I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. It is true that people — I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it's very disruptive to the science because it's terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field. I found that these emotional entanglements made life very difficult.
I'm so sorry to hear that the irresistibly sexy Hunt has had trouble playing nicely with the girls in his labs. Truly, it must be an incredible hardship and source of much trauma to him.
It's terribly important that you can criticise people's ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.
Those women and their crying.
Their decision to take a break from their tears to speak out on Hunt's comments and sexism in STEM in general had serious impact. He tendered his resignation from the Royal Society's awards committee, with the organization stating that:
Sir Tim Hunt’s recent comments relating to women in science have no place in science. The Royal Society believes that too many talented individuals do not fulfil their scientific potential because of issues such as gender discrimination and the Society is committed to helping to put this right.
He has also left his position at University College London. It's safe to say that Hunt is going to live with these comments and their repercussions as a shadow over the rest of his career, which some people might think of as unfair, but, frankly, I think it's entirely fair. These kinds of statements have a real-world effect on women in the sciences now as well as those considering scientific careers in the future. For every man who engages in acts of casual sexism like this, who knows how many women falter in the struggle to be treated equally in STEM. His career won't be ruined over this, but the criticism of his actions will, and should be, remembered.
#distractinglysexy is hilarious, but it comes with a sharp edge. Doing research poses amazing, fun, intense challenges — why should women in STEM have to deal with sexism on top of those?