Fast Sexism: The Tim Hunt Case

It's hard not to fall in love with this science guy. Thankfully I am safely in the lady world of the arts.

It’s hard not to fall in love with this science guy. Thankfully I am safe in the lady world of the arts.

British scientist Tim Hunt recently made sexist remarks and caused an uproar in the media. Hunt won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2001, and is well known in his profession. In June 2015 he suddenly blew up, becoming a household name and attracting as many online lovers as haters. Hunt doesn’t like the passionate debate that continues to surround him, however, for in his opinion emotion and science do not mix. It all started when Hunt was speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. There he reportedly described himself as a “chauvinist pig” and argued in favour of single-sex laboratories. According to him, when women work alongside men: “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” A woman in the audience tweeted Hunt’s remarks, igniting a fire storm of critique on Twitter and other social media platforms. Some called for Hunt to resign from the University College London, while others dismissed those who were angry, claiming that Hunt was just joking. Even as most people found Hunt’s public statements to be indefensible, the senior scientist has received support from those who insist that the “poor guy” was quickly ousted from the university by “political correctness” and/or feminazis. There are many articles with such comments online, including these two: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-33090022 and http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/13/tim-hunt-hung-out-to-dry-interview-mary-collins.

Her lenses bring all the profs to the yard.

Her lenses bring all the profs to the yard.

I followed the discussion with some interest because it was alternately hilarious and infuriating. Female scientists provided the humour by cleverly posting images of themselves being “distractingly sexy” in the laboratory. Other women bragged about managing not to cry while performing organ transplant surgeries. Who knew that so many witty, well educated, and obviously hot women scientists were changing the world for the better? Well, now we do know about them and we can thank Sir Tim for that. [Yes he is a knight.]

No so fast. Tim Hunt is not a hero; nor is he a victim. I agree that there has been an over reaction to his case, especially by his defenders. Even the normally calm and convincing Richard Dawkins became a little unhinged by Hunt’s situation, comparing it to a “witch hunt”: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3131111/Sexism-row-professor-victim-baying-witch-hunt-says-Dawkins.html. In sixteenth-century Europe, older, single women were considered threatening, accused of having sex with the devil, and then killed. In 2015, older scientist Tim Hunt is lambasted online and then resigns=same thing. Really, Professor Dawkins? I normally have great respect for your opinions, especially your lucid critiques of organized religion. But let’s face it, Tim Hunt was and remains a privileged white guy. At age 72, he has had a long and illustrious career. He did not lose his job because of a single remark; he merely resigned from an honourary position at a university. Hunt lost his pride, maybe, but not his credentials, livelihood, or life. The real issue is that Hunt lost some of his white male privilege. When Hunt was standing on stage in South Korea it apparently never crossed his mind that he could be criticized for saying offensive things about women. Maybe he presumed that he could say anything he wanted about women, that he was all-powerful and untouchable: Probably not. I think that Hunt simply never thought about it at all; he never recognized his own power because he never had to. The established scientist had always benefited from hierarchical structures, so they were invisible to him. It took him 72 years to realize that making offhand comments about a group of people could produce anger and damage his reputation. I call that getting off lightly.

In some ways, then, the Tim Hunt situation is a case of “slow sexism.” A guy who is established and powerful (and probably pretty nice compared to the average a-hole) finally had to think about sexism, even if he resented it and insisted that he was “hung out to dry” like some kind of tapeworm specimen. I titled this post “fast sexism,” however, because the responses to Hunt’s remarks were swift. His comments were tweeted, re-tweeted, and repeated hundreds of times within hours. Hunt’s reportedly voluntary resignation from University College London occurred only a few days after the sexist comments were made. The rapidity with which the events unfolded was remarkable, and the discussions of this rapidity are among the most useful results of the entire situation. Social media platforms communicate information instantaneously, demanding responses just as quickly. It is now commonplace to skim an article, reading only the catchy headline or else a short tweet, and then post a comment about something as complex as sexism, racism, or sexual politics. These days we are practically obligated to voice strong opinions on almost any topic right away, regardless of our knowledge base or lack thereof. Taking time to research an issue, to ponder or discuss it, or (God forbid) change our mind about it, is unseemly. Slow thinking is currently linked with weakness or even pedantry. The immediate spread of information is not efficient at all, for the debates are shallow and almost always reinforce the status quo, instead of challenging it. That is how you get thousands of people excusing sexist comments and taking the opportunity to blame power-mad feminists for ruining some poor guy’s career.

Really thinking about the Tim Hunt case means moving beyond the biography of one senior scientist. His comments and the response to them should be placed within the history of science and its well documented exclusion of women. Hunt’s separation of emotion from scientific research is not a neutral idea, but has long been used to keep overly “feminine” women out of the laboratory. His “jokes” speak to a larger picture in which women are still pushed out of professions and belittled in a series of small, almost imperceptible ways by nice guys who actually like or even love women. At the same time, Hunt’s claims should be placed alongside decades of feminist scholarship about the gendered production of scientific knowledge. Scholars have highlighted the co-production of masculinity and scientific knowledge, female ways of knowing (the concept is certainly debated), and the important work of individual female scientists. They have also explored the ways in which some women have used emotions in order to make important discoveries. A book by Evelyn Fox Keller, called A Feeling for the Organism, shows how Nobel-Prize-winning scientist Barbara McClintock made great strides in genetic research within a particular gendered context of relationships that was material and embodied. In some ways, the female scientists who picture themselves in labs while poking fun at Sir Tim are using a similar strategy. I will leave the last word to one of them: “I’m a Female Scientist and I Agree with Tim Hunt”: https://medium.com/@a_rubin/i-m-a-female-scientist-and-i-agree-with-tim-hunt-8158bb657349own,

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 50-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

4 thoughts on “Fast Sexism: The Tim Hunt Case

  1. I wasn’t aware about the Tim Hunt controversy… I don’t watch the news. I enjoyed your post though! Always nice to stretch my brain. Thanks FFG.

    • Thanks Jen. I only watch the news a few times a year, when I am lying in the dentists’ chair. Everything else is online news feeds etc., so all the outrages involving women usually come my way at some point.

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