Can we laugh about this yet?

STEM subjects, crying, Jimmy Choos and the love of a good woman. 

National Commitee member Sandra Mills ponders Sir Tim Hunt's mindset and the problems of women in the sciences and engineering.



Sir Tim Hunt, a man I had never heard of before this week, declared in a speech to the World Conference of Science Journalists that women cause trouble in labs: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, they cry when criticised. I had to look him up. Nobel Laureate winner, hmmm. Honorary professor at University College of London (well, “honorary” doesn’t sound like he’s got a lot of responsibility, does it?). Knighted in 2006, Royal Society Fellow… he can now add “embarrassing Brit abroad” to his titles, if he wants to. 

What I was interested in was his response to the response: he claimed it was meant in a light-hearted, ironic way, and he’s very sorry for the offence caused. In his very nice, soft voiced, cultured manner he said it was “awful” that he’d upset people. What was clear to me, though, was that he really seems to think that it was making the comments that was the problem. When, actually, the real issue is that he genuinely holds those views…in fact he had no malicious intent in saying them at all. So the media focus on the words themselves – silly, thoughtless, careless words – distracts us from the real problem. The embedded bias towards men in the STEM industries, which was so spectacularly reflected in Sir Hunt’s opinion, has resulted in only 13 percent (13%) participation by women within the industry. Seems ridiculously low doesn’t it? It’s also stubbornly immovable; it has been a relatively stable statistic since the 1970’s.

So I managed to catch a brief discussion of the issue on the Jeremy Vine Show today on Radio 2 and I definitely chose the wrong chunk to tune in to. A comedic genius called in from Thurso to declare that everything Sir Hunt said was true, irrefutably true, because he had worked in an office and it was the same thing. While all the sensible men just wore sensible suits every day the silly bints in the office swanned about in Jimmy Choos and designer clothes, and the minute - the very instant - they were criticised, they just had a hissy fit and resigned. Ahhhh. It’s all become immediately clear, thanks to the insightful banter contributed by Mr Jolly from Thurso, as to why there are so few women in the boardroom. Obviously, by some strange, happy accident, some of the constantly resigning hysterics have managed to slip through the cracks of an otherwise well ordered, calm system.

While it’s easy to mock, I can imagine that any woman who has never got a job off of Mr Jolly because she was wearing Jimmy Choos maybe wasn’t laughing. And did any woman who did get a job off him ever manage to compose herself enough to let him know that she wasn’t crying because of the criticism per se, but perhaps because of the unfairness of it, or the fact that it was delivered in an unprofessional manner by someone who is clearly a complete arse? (Sometimes only profanity will do. I considered comparing Mr Jolly to both a male rude bit and a female rude bit, but settled for a non-gendered insult.) As you can see, my imagination is quite rich, given that I don’t actually know the man, but believe me, I have known many, many men who hold the same opinions in my long and chequered career.

It’s all too boringly familiar: “If women were good enough, they wouldn’t need any help to get into the industry”... “Women just don’t want to be engineers. The boots are very heavy, you know”… “But thinking rationally is a man’s thing, really, isn’t it?”…”Girls just don’t like science”. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Sir Tim Hunt’s answer to the problem was for women to have their own labs. So he wouldn’t be holding them back. In one of the most collaborative industries in the modern world, one of its leading lights thinks women should just do their own thing so they can do their crying in their own labs and not bother anyone.

I have a different answer, humble, lowly non-scientist that I am. First:  Resign if he must, but that’s not going to alter the many years that he did have power over the careers and lives of women within the industry. He’s 72 for cat’s sake, and it looks to me as if his “job” was all about prestige and not about actually running anything. But resigning’s ok if it means a little bit less of the deferential accolades naturally falling his way. By all means, move over dinosaur, and let someone else have a go. You’ll get no sympathy from me.

Second: The discourse needs to broaden out from attracting young girls into STEM subjects at school. That is only one aspect of the problem, and that debate has been going on ad nauseum since the 70’s; isn’t it time we admitted that it’s not having an impact? Girls will pick those subjects more often when they see the role models: their mums, grans, aunties and sisters working in STEM and being successful. Maybe getting Nobel Prizes and public accolades. When they see women scientists on the telly who are not presented as “frumpy brain boxes” or “foxes in white coats”, but as people doing an important job. When they turn up to their first day of their engineering course to see other young women as well as men, instead of a class filled with farting, shouty outy, laddish, professional class disrupters who have been funnelled into engineering by their stressed out guidance teacher because that’s what you do with boys - instead of tackling lack of achievement you cover your backside by getting them on a course that they may just take an interest in (and there goes that embedded bias once more).

Third: Throughout the industry there needs to be strategies to include and promote women. Many women who are studying and working within the industry are perfectly capable of career advancement on the back of their own skills and achievement, but this is weighted against a systematic bias that places their gender as being more important than the individual skills. All women shortlists are a blunt instrument, but they work when it comes to increasing participation. They work. Sometimes, they are the only tool that does work. Are they a sledgehammer being used to crack a nut? Or are they the eggs being broken to make an omelette? Wherever you can see power being ripped from someone’s steely grip, you can also see resentment, bitterness and blame. Of course nobody wants the pendulum to swing away from their own advantage – the men that dominate and control the STEM industries would be idiots to give up their advantage freely. It might mean they’d have to compete using only their own achievements and skills, and believe, me there’s plenty of anxiety induced in that idea. But here’s another tool analogy for you: we need to crowbar women in. The Tim Hunts of this world have made that much perfectly clear.

Maybe one day we’ll be celebrating the death of the “all female shortlist”, because the statistics and narratives will tell us they’ve had their day. Oh, how we’ll laugh at the ridiculous comments of Sir Tim Hunt, and his funny old ways of falling in love with female scientists for no apparent reason. If I didn’t know how sinister that mind set is, I’d be laughing now.


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