It’s a bumper season for sexism in science. Earlier this year, the media was abuzz with a startling revelation: sexism in science is a myth! A study by developmental psychologists Williams and Ceci, purportedly showing a lack of hiring bias in academia, became fodder for “clickbait” inflation characteristic of media hype. Recent newsworthy events, however, show that casual sexism is alive and well, unwittingly propagated by the stalwarts who make up the old guard. They’ve left us shaking our heads wondering, what were they thinking?

The Blunders: By now much has been said about the unfortunate remarks uttered by the Nobel Prize winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt while addressing a roomful of women scientists and journalists in Korea.

“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 criticize them, they cry”.

Sir Tim was speaking from personal experience: his wife Professor Mary Collins used to be his student, with whom he “fell in love in the lab” exemplifying the “relationship drama” that can be so distracting in a professional setting.

No Falling in Love. No crying. Photo: Prof Rajini Rao
No Falling in Love. No crying. Photo: Prof Rajini Rao

Similarly,  former AAAS president Professor Alice Huang, who also married her postdoctoral mentor Nobelist David Baltimore after a lab romance, suggested that young women should tolerate unwanted (and inappropriate) sexual behavior in the work place. Responding on her Ask Alice column to a woman postdoc who asked for advice in dealing with a mentor repeatedly looking down her blouse, Dr. Huang advised her to “put up with it, with good humor if you can”.

There have been several defenses of both Professors. Some people say that because Hunt and Huang are in their seventies, perhaps they are relics of the days when gender inequity was hardly acknowledged, let alone accepted as problematic. Huang later said that although she was familiar with every form of sexism there is, her advice was mindful of the best long-term interest of the postdoc. Unfortunately, this attitude perpetuates the culture of harassment in science.

Hunt questioned the need for concern about gender equity in STEM in a 2014 interview, suggesting a long-standing gap in his thinking:

One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

The generational under-representation of women scientists in senior positions is hardly surprising given the all-too-common sacrifices made by women in support of their spouse’s career, as exemplified in this self-serving career “advice” given by University of Toronto professor and department head Elephtherios Diamandis for Science magazine.

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

As pithily pointed out by neuroscientist on Twitter, @BabyAttachedMode, “Written from a different angle this would illustrate part of the reason why women leave academia.”

The problem with senior scientists giving sexist advice in high profile venues is that it encourages poor work/life balance and condones the “patriarchal bargain”, used by disadvantaged women who conform to the patriarchal demands of their gender to get ahead or merely survive.

Finally,  the casual use of sex to sell science is also problematic. We’ve highlighted the “coconut bra” graphical abstract in the Journal of Proteomics, the scantily clad women on “the shirt” worn by a Rosetta Mission scientist on the television broadcast of a historic event, and now, popular science host Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ‘funny’ tweet on teeny panties to make the case “climate change”. Et tu, Brute?

In each case, the audience was not universally amused. In fact, the host organization of Korean women science journalists at Sir Tim’s event were “deeply shocked and saddened by his remarks” and affirmed that they “were not alone in seeing these comments as sexist and damaging to science”.

The Blow-up:  Women in STEM have responded to these sexist stories with satirical posts on social media, proving not only their capacity for humour, but also showcasing the absurdity of outdated anecdotes and advice. The #DistractinglySexy meme went viral, with self-affirming photos of women in hazmat suits or lab coats going about their everyday research from analyzing poo to peering down microscopes. Tongue-in-cheek lab signs announcing “No Crying, No Falling in Love” were paired with images of tears mopped up with giant Kim Wipes.

Thanks to the irreverent activism by professional women on social media, these stories quickly gained broader media traction. Science magazine removed Dr. Huang’s advice column with the admission that women “in science, or any other field, should never be expected to tolerate unwanted sexual attention in the workplace.”  The host organization in Korea, KOFWST, demanded and received a public apology from Sir Tim, who also stepped down from three honorary, unpaid positions (at the Royal Society, University College of London, and European Research Council). The Royal Society Chair of Diversity, Professor Uta Frith, reaffirmed the responsibility for institutions to be more accountable on gender equity, and the impetus to act on all discriminatory acts, whether they are overt or unconscious.

Professor Frith argues “Institutions can do things that individuals can’t,” which is to enforce a code of professional and collegial conduct:

It was necessary to affirm the truth of [the Royal Society’s] genuine wish to do away with the obstacles that stand in the way of women’s careers in science. To do nothing would send a signal that it is acceptable to trivialise women’s achievement in science.

The message from the scientific organisations involved was consistent and clear: Nobel prize notwithstanding, professional scientists have little tolerance for sexism, irrespective of the platform and spirit in which it may have been delivered. At this point, the Hunt debacle could well have died down, but it only got worse.

I believe that for us at the Royal Society the main problem is not overt prejudice, but the hidden anachronistic assumptions and attitudes, the sort that sometimes surface in jokes. - Prof Uta Frith, Royal Society Chair of Diversity Committee
I believe that for us at the Royal Society the main problem is not overt prejudice, but the hidden anachronistic assumptions and attitudes, the sort that sometimes surface in jokes. – Prof Uta Frith, , Royal Society Chair of Diversity Committee

The Backlash: With tedious inevitability, a righteous response to the hoi polloi ensued. Eight fellow Nobelists warned of a chilling effect on “freedom of speech”. Excuses by apologists ensued, with the usual tone-policing and vicious backlash that are active impediments to challenging the institutionalised sexism in STEM.

It was only a joke: Intent is never the issue when causing offense. It’s not enough to say, “I didn’t mean to offend.” Because, women have been subject to this kind of dismissive stereotyping for far too long, and because jokes demeaning “girls” (a condescending reference to women professionals) are themselves a sign of everyday sexism. The  tidal wave abuse directed towards the women who spoke out on Sir Tim’s comments demonstrates sexism in science is still a problem. Conversely, the sustained defence that jokes don’t constitute sexism further perpetuates the problem.

Sir Tim is a good guy: Colleagues of Sir Tim have vouched for his track record in mentoring women scientists, deflecting charges of sexism due to their personal interactions with their colleague. In fact Sir Tim acknowledged and reaffirmed his sexist comments. Many of Sir Tim’s defenders persist in seeing sexism through the prism of individuals. He couldn’t possibly be sexist because some women support him, he has been a good mentor over the years and therefore he should be judged by his actions and not his words. This narrative misses the key point that there are no ‘good guys or bad guys’ in science. Bad behaviour should be called out, and a Nobel prize is not a get out of jail free card.

The repercussions were disproportionate to the act:  Popular science icon, Professor Brian Cox, opined that the response to Sir Tim was disproportionate and that the “Twitter mob” had gone too far. Not one, but two, petitions to reinstate his “lost job” at the UCL gained several thousand signatories. Public sympathy for Sir Tim stems from the impression that a beleaguered and brilliant scientist has lost his job and his career ruined. In reality, he resigned from honorary, unpaid positions. As clarified by UCL President and Provost Michael Arthur, “An honorary appointment is meant to bring honour both to the person and to the University”. Sir Tim’s Nobel Prize was not withdrawn – in fact, the Nobel Prize Committee has not weighed in on the public debate. Sir Hunt’s ability to continue working as a scientist has not changed; indeed he is still an emeritus professor at the Francis Crick Institute in London. He has therefore not lost his capacity to continue to do science. Instead, these institutions have – as within their rights – removed him as a member of committees that specifically need to reflect commitment to inclusion and equity in science.

The Twitter mob engaged in public lynching: Much like #ShirtStorm, when Rosetta Project scientist Matt Taylor faced critique for wearing his sexism on his sleeve, the public backlash against women who spoke out against sexism then was described as a “lynch mob.” Scientist Emily Willingham noted that describing women in science as a “lynch mob” whitewashes actual lynch mobs, where White people burned Black Americans alive. Not only is this comparison historically inaccurate, it is a sexist and racist appropriation of slavery. The same goes with the myth that “Twitter mobs ”went after Sir Tim, a comment repeated by Cox and various other – mostly White – men. Likening women’s reasonable request to be treated with professional respect to a “lynch mob” serves sexist fantasies that women’s resistance to sexism is an act of violence, even as women are subjected to abuse for discussing gender equity.

Richard Dawkins demanded an apology for the “witch hunt,” in a snide play on Sir Tim’s name that positions women as witches. Dawkins’ hyperbole comparison ignores the history of witch hunts, where tens of thousands of women were killed, with the complicity of STEM institutions (specifically male medical practitioners).

Criticism of Dr. Diamandis’ Science Careers observation that his wife – also a Ph.D. scientist – “worked far less because she took on the bulk of domestic duties” was met with a dismissive, “Put away your pitchforks,” another sexist allusion to the so-called “Twitter mob”.

Today, women may not be burned at the stake or drowned, but they are made suffer death and rape threats simply for speaking out against sexism. The hate speech that meets women for simply taking up conversations about sexism in science is an unacceptable reminder that women face very real dangers as a result of sexist culture.

Shoot the messenger: Leading the rush to defend Sir Tim, the Daily Mail called into question Connie St. Louis’ CV, insinuating that her credentials were false as was her memory of the journalism event. Tellingly, they did not seek comment from St. Louis’ institution, City University London, which has stood behind her professional qualifications, as has the Association of British Science Writers, where she is a Board Member. The act of denigrating a Black woman’s education is another discriminatory pattern in STEM, rooted in sexism and racism, the outcome of which is fewer numbers of minority women in science. It is noteworthy that the Mail did not pursue similar smear tactics against the other three individuals (Blum, Seife and Oransky) who validated St. Louis’ report.

Women conspired to play the victim: The backlash against women who spoke out against Sir Tim’s comments is symptomatic of sexist culture in science. Women have been accused of being humorless, overly-sensitive, overly-emotional and of over-reacting. This is an ironic given Sir Tim’s emotional response to public criticism. Research shows that women do the disproportionate amount of emotion work (looking after other people’s feelings) in professional life. Professor Arlie Hochschild’s research, conducted over three decades, shows that: “Emotional labour has hidden costs, and these fall more heavily on women.” In STEM, the hidden costs involve doing the disproportionate amount of mentoring, administration, teaching and pastoral care of students, but this work is not recognized. Now that’s a crying shame.

Break the cycle of sexism in STEM. Blunder - Renowned scientist says something sexist. Blow-up - Women take action against sexism in STEM. Backlash - Public (mostly White men) abuse women for speaking out. "Is science so special that any old sexist (or for that matter racist) words that they utter are allowed?" - Connie St Louis
Break the cycle of sexism in STEM: “Is science so special that any old sexist (or for that matter racist) words that they utter are allowed?” – Connie St Louis

Changing the Culture: Perpetuating harmful stereotypes can have a lasting impact on the diversity of the people who do science. Why is diversity in science important?  The practical application of science is about creative problem solving – if everyone thought or behaved the same way, we cannot find solutions to the problems that plague our society, from curing disease to addressing climate change. The culture of science is as important as the content it produces. We cannot escape the endless cycle of blunder to blow-up to backlash until we acknowledge the existence of sexism in STEM, and then stop defending those who perpetuate that sexism.

Michèle Clarke at the University of Nottingham, UK, and chair of its staff equality and diversity advisory group, says I think we all hope those attitudes are beginning to die out with the ‘old guard’.” Renowned scientists who are in the public eye exert tremendous public influence because they are given a platform to speak. As such, we expect more from them and must hold them accountable when they say and do things that undermine gender equity. With great power comes great responsibility.

STEM Women
STEM Women is set up to help the public to connect with women who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Our network is run by a group of practising STEM women professionals. We aim to create a safe place for people of all genders to discuss how we can work together to make STEM more inclusive.

Join us: