This week, a Nobel laureate resigned his post after controversy surrounding comments about women in the lab. He joked that when women enter labs (a previously male-only space), three things happen: they fall in love with men, men fall in love with them, and they cry.
Later, he apologised, after a fashion, saying that he should not have spoken “like that in front of so many journalists”.
And now, yes, he has resigned.
How can we view this?
We can view it as an act of revenge- bitter women, insulted by this great man and determined to bring him down. We can see it as irrelevant to his work- our focus on our own hurt feelings threatening to bring back scientific progress.
After all, everyone knows that science ain’t for wusses.
We could view it like that. Or we can take a look at the effects of leaving him as he was on science as a whole.
We like to think of science in terms of great men (or occasionally women, although how many great women scientists can the average person name?)- of genius. Progress, in these terms, happens in Eureka moments, when inspiration hits a unique mind and our society and species are never the same again.
It’s not far from the way that we look at history, is it? Great men being inspired, making decisions, and changing the course of the world.
In this conception of history, we need our great men, don’t we? And don’t forget that this is the same imagining that gives rise to the rags-to-riches- or in this case failure-to-greatness- stories of our scientific heroes. Stories of Einstein failing maths (he didn’t), or of the legions of earlier scientists being thrown to the Inquisition and burned at the stake for the sake of integrity, of ideas, of refusing to ever back down.
It’s a good myth, isn’t it? Do you know why else we like it? It absolves us of responsibility. You see, if science is brought forward in leaps by great people who fight to the literal-death for their ideas, we don’t need to worry about them. They’ll get there. They’ll do it. We don’t need to concern ourselves with creating a space where scientists can flourish.
And, of course, in this myth if it happens that most of these great scientists are men? That must just be the way that we’re born.
Of course, if one is simply born a scientist, then we don’t just need to invoke the idea that men are more likely to be born that way. We also need to account for the fact that Nobel laureates are significantly more likely to be white, to come from Western countries, and to be brought up in reasonably well-off circumstances.
I don’t need to go into the unpleasant consequences of that train of thought, do I?
Fortunately for us, that’s not necessary.
Let’s take a different approach.
Let’s imagine that scientific progress comes about through a combination of many things. Some people’s innate talent, yes, plays an important part. However, that talent grows best in fertile soil: spaces where people can indulge their curiosity and develop a love of learning and discovery. Access to education and the facilities that they need. Encouragement to follow hunches and evidence where they lead. And the knowledge that your works are what will be celebrated and what will be questioned.
Let’s imagine that in science, as in all other fields, if people are made to feel unwelcome, or if they are tokenised and not taken seriously, or if they have to work significantly harder than others for the same achievements- or, of course, if the way that the workplace is structured favours people from certain backgrounds over others- then some will be more likely to make it to the top than others. Let’s imagine that if this happens, then certain groups of people- maybe, say, white men from well-off, Western backgrounds- will be more likely to stick around in science. Because they are the people who experience the environment they need for their talents to be nurtured.
This is relevant, I promise.
Let’s try for one more premise, shall we? Let’s make the assumption that science makes its best progress when it has the widest pool of possible scientists to pick its best people from. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If everyone who could be a scientist has the chance to be, and will have their talents nurtured if they make that choice, then it’s far more likely that our pool of scientists will be as good as it can possibly be. Every time we narrow down that pool of potential, we cut ourselves off from people who could do good and important work, and bring something unique to the endeavour.
Same as every other field, really.
Of course, we don’t have to suppose. We know these things to be true, for the same reason that we know most of the things we do: the science has borne it out. Leaky pipelines, glass ceilings, the chilling effect of constant microaggressions, stereotype threat: these are real. They have real effects.
Let’s think about those microaggressions and that chilling effect. Gendered stereotypes- say, that women are overemotional and irrational, that we exist as objects of men’s attractions- make it more difficult for women to exist in science. Instead of being seen as individuals, we are marked as the other. Singled out. Where we are already a numerical minority, we’re made to feel even more so.
These may seem like small things.
Multiply them. By every day, every month, for all of the years of your career.
Imagine that the people you work under have these assumptions. Imagine that you have to work twice as hard as your male colleagues for the same respect- the same progression- and you’re only half again as good as they are. Imagine if over the years this wears you down.
Now multiply this by the many thousands of women scientists in male-dominated fields. Imagine how much work- how much progress, how much inspiration- has been lost because of those women being worn down, little by little. And now imagine how many women are missing- those who could have worked well in their field, but for whom the cost of keeping on was just that little bit more than the cost of moving to a different career.
Let’s go back to Tim Hunt.
Tim Hunt is undoubtedly a brilliant man in his field.
Tim Hunt is just one man. We will no doubt lose out if his mind and efforts are lots to science. But how much more are we losing every day, from all of the thousands of women whose jobs are that little bit harder than they need to be.
Tim Hunt didn’t create sexist attitudes. However, sexist attitudes- and the harm that they do- continue because we give them space to exist unquestioned. We tell men that the men above them feel this way- that these are the feelings they can have in private until they become powerful enough to share them in public. We tell women that this is how the people who could have been their role models feel. And we tell women that their presence will always be conditional on their accepting that.
Tim Hunt’s resignation isn’t going to solve the all-encompassing problems of sexism in science- or, of course, of the sexism throughout society from which it springs. But large-scale social problems are composed of countless everyday actions. And so are their solutions.
If Tim Hunt stays resigned, we’ll have lost one man. One smart man. One great man, even. But if we send a message that his views on women will not be tolerated, how many women- how many thousands of women and girls- will feel a little less worn down, a little more backed-up, a little more valued tomorrow?
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