Sir Tim Hunt: The Tip of the Iceberg

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Sir Tim Hunt hit the headlines this week, but not for a scientific breakthrough, but by making incredibly sexist comments regarding women in science. Alongside his accolades for cell duplication, the honorary professor at UCL has a well established reputation as a chauvinist.

He told the World Conference of Science Journalists that he thinks that labs should be segregated by gender and is quoted to say:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls, you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!”

These comments sparked outrage, however, unfortunately he is not an anomaly. There is a strong undercurrent of sexism throughout the STEM industries, both overt and covert. This can range from comments like the ones made by Sir Tim Hunt, to subtler forms of sexism which are deeply entrenched in society. For example, despite the massive advances made by the women’s movement, 70% of the world still associate being a scientist with being a man.

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Other influential figures have been heard to openly discredit women in science. Michaela Strachen, a BBC presenter who presents Autumnwatch and (rather worryingly) the  children’s television programme The Really Wild Show, has publicly said that:

“Men are ‘wired’ differently, making it easier for them to learn the names and categories of animal species.”

Sir Tim Hunt suggests that ‘girls’ should stay out of the laboratory because they distract men. This concept is unfortunately also well established in many areas of society, including the classroom. 

Social Media led activism has highlighted that many schools use dress codes to shame the way girls dress, and many school girls are speaking out about how these sexist school dress codes have effected their education. Reports have shown that girls have been sent home from school for wearing summer clothing during hot weather, and have even been asked to leave final year exams, because their vest tops are ‘distracting male students from their education’. 

Comments like the one’s made by Sir Tim Hunt and Michaela Strachen are therefore not uncommon, and ultimately effect the education and the careers of women in science. And though their public notoriety does allow a public conversation to develop, exposure to these sorts of comments can have an effect on the careers young girls think they are capable of.

The public discussion resulting from this event can hopefully draw attention to the institutional sexism within science and raise awareness for the amazing work organisations are doing to support women in science, and increase the representation of women in STEM.

Excellent organisations which help to address these issues that face women in STEM include; STEMettes,  Wise,  ScienceGrrl, Women in nuclear and WiSET.