Feminist Friday: Women and Science and Sexism

This wasn’t going to be a post about this week’s sexism furore. It was GOING to be Part One of “Why I Am A Feminist”, and I’d worked out a stonking cliffhanger and everything.

And then…a thing happened. A thing that directly affects me, because I am a woman, and I work in science. Not, it must be said, as a scientist. I’m an administrator for a bunch of research groups, but I read the articles on Sir Tim Hunt’s facetious and ignorant comments and thought “Yeah, I know what that’s like.” I know how sexism in science happens. I’ve seen it.

And I work with too many brilliant scientists – of both genders – to let one boorish crass moment become another moment of tabloid fodder – centre stage today, and forgotten tomorrow, with no real possibility of change.

Sir Tim Hunt made comments about women being a distraction in the lab, because you fall in love and then they cry. The thing is, if you examine the facts, there is a kernel of truth to some of his comments.

Amongst the academics I currently know or work with, there are many PIs (Principal Investigators) who are married to a post-doctoral researcher in their group. And funnily enough, the PIs tend to be male, and the post-docs tend to be female. I’m not sure this is that surprising though. I see how hard the researchers work, how much time they spend in the labs. If you’re forced into close proximity with people, who have similar interests to you, and with whom you spend a significant amount of time, is it not both possible and reasonable that you may end up becoming friends, or even falling in love?

The problem seems to be in Sir Tim’s eyes that falling in love is an inconvenience, and, of course, for a self-confessed chauvinist, all the woman’s fault.

The women I’ve met working in science are working there because they genuinely love their fields of research. No-one would voluntarily engage in lab-based slavery, I mean, work, simply to attract a man. It’s a bit like suggesting that someone interested in books would start working in the library in the hopes of attracting a man….sure, they’ll share you interests, but there’s too many cardigans and luxurious beards for passion to truly bloom.

Anyway, people fall in love all the time in the workplace. I’ve worked with loads of people who were going out with each other, and who met at work. From the Amanda Palmer wannabe and her dopey stoner boyfriend in my last job, to the handyman and the care assistant at my first, I’ve watched people at work fall in love and start stable, happy, long-term relationships. Is Sir Tim Hunt suggesting we segregate them as well?

I suspect not, and moreover, I postulate that his desire to segregate men and women in science comes from an inalienable feeling of superiority…but this is not about science egos.

There are a number of really excellent responses to the falling in love comment, but no-one seems to have addressed the “when you criticise them, they cry” aspect of his totally stupid comment.

Firstly, if you criticise someone and then they cry, there’s a pretty good chance you’re being a dick. I’ve watched the PhD students and post-docs in the labs, and seen how hard they work. They’re in at the weekends, they stay till after midnight – one of them even set an experiment to run and came back in the middle of the night to finish it off. That’s normal, in Science-Land, so I’m going to infer from that that they are all desperately sleep-deprived and worn-out. You could tell them they’d done the best thing in the world and they’d cry.

Also, I haven’t actually seen anyone cry yet, but I’ve got a small bet on down at Ladbrokes, that when the PhD students start writing up, they are ALL going to cry, regardless of gender. The first PhD student we had, who ended up not writing up because he couldn’t cope with the pressure, I’m pretty sure he cried at one point.

If you’ve never had the sort of day at work that makes you want to anaesthetise yourself with food, alcohol or sugar, before you curl up in a ball and sob the woes away, then you’re either still very young, or you’re a male chauvinist pig. OK, that’s a bit harsh – but haven’t we all had the sort of day where everything goes wrong and then someone comes along and criticises you? Doesn’t it make you want to set someone on fire?

(Little sidenote to my colleagues: I will never judge you for having a tiny weep. I keep tissues in my office especially.)

Anyway, the real problem with Sir TIm’s comment is the inferences he makes by saying that women cry when you criticise them. Yes, sometimes they do. The problem is that he infers crying when criticised is an entirely feminine preoccupation, and that no man would ever stoop to such pathetic depths. Which equally implies that men must be stoical and unemotional, never showing their true feelings. Which does our intelligent, capable, emotive men no favours at all.

When two of our post-docs got papers published, we celebrated with equal fervour – the men as well as the women. When our technician announced her pregnancy, the men were as excited and pleased as the women. Men are no less capable of emotion than women. They’re just told they can’t express it, because if they do, men like Sir Tim Hunt (who still have the power to control the world of science, whether we like it or not) will blame it on women, blame it on emotional women, who are too distracting in the labs to allow the boys – the cold, rational, emotionless boys – to do their science. And that’s bad for everyone.


There have been lots of awesome commentaries on this situation over the last few days; if you’d like to read some more, the list below is a short selection of my favourites.

Anne Perkins for The Guardian responds – this contains the particularly excellent paragraph: In many ways, Hunt is one of those characters familiar from every workplace, someone who has never troubled to consider the world in which he lives except from the perspective of how well it services his needs.

Dotty Winters at Standard Issue responds

Gaby Hinsliff at The Guardian offers a suggestion for re-education

Opinion piece by Shiza Ather at The Telegraph – this one makes a point I think many of my colleagues would agree with: To be honest, the boys I study alongside would be just as nonplussed by Sir Tim’s remarks as the girls are.

Dr Jennifer Rohn highlights the lack of female leadership as a reason that this sexism endures

AND FINALLY: if you want to enjoy the full spectrum of witty, clever, capable women in science, check out the Twitter hashtag #DistractinglySexy. Full of women doing science!

P.S. The only thing I haven’t found is any articles by men about their feelings on Sir Tim Hunt’s comments. If anyone’s come across any, can you point me in their direction? Thanks!


Quick Glossary For Terms That Might Be Unfamiliar:

PI = Principal Investigator – the person who “runs” the lab. Obtains grants. Is the boss. Is in charge.

Post-doctoral researcher = someone who has obtained their PhD and now works for a PI, carrying out experiments and usually supervising students.

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