After Sir Tim Hunt shared his thoughts about coed laboratories recently, female scientists had every reason to boil over in anger.
They did something better. They got funny.
Hunt, a British biochemist with an IQ off the charts and an EQ that could use a refresher, resigned from the University College London after stating at a conference in South Korea that “the trouble with girls is they fall in love with you, you fall in love with them and then when they’re criticized, they cry.”
Awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine in 2001 (because the Peace Prize would have been a stretch), he quickly un-apologized by noting that it was “a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists.”
Then he reluctantly resigned.
Honestly, I’m less angry with the 72-year-old bloke than sad for him. Evidently, he didn’t look up from his brilliant cancer research career for decades. Had he done so, he would have taken in a vastly changing landscape, one in which respectable coed collaborations are common — and offensive offhand remarks will catapult you into the rubbish bin at the speed of sound.
I am betting there were plenty of tears — in the Hunt household. Hunt’s wife is the equally brilliant Mary Collins, a professor of immunology at the University College London, and director of the Medical Research Council Centre for Medical Molecular Virology, whose research includes the development of cancer vaccines.
If my low-level math skills are correct, she and he worked together in a lab in the early 1990s.
“It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say,” the devoted Collins said last week. “You can see why it could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But, really, it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s. Nevertheless, he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.”
Other female scientists also came to Hunt’s defense (and a petition is circling ’round to get him reinstated).
“During the time I worked with him, he was always immensely supportive of the European Research Council’s work around gender equality,” said Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge.
“His off-the-cuff remarks in Korea are clearly inappropriate and indefensible,” Donald said, “but … he has worked tirelessly in support of young scientists of both genders.”
“Tim taught me as an undergraduate and I have known him for years,” added plant biologist and Cambridge Prof. Ottoline Leyser, speaking in the British-based Observer.
“It is quite clear to me that he is not a sexist in any way,” Leyser said. “I don’t know why he said those silly things, but the way his remarks have been taken up implies that women in science are having a horrible time. That is not the case.
“I, for one, am having a wonderful time.”
And that is what I hope we all take away from last week’s unfortunate tale. Yes, there are still large inequities in the number of girls enrolling in science courses and majors, and not nearly enough females in laboratories and science-focused careers.
Yes, the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes are still given to men — 786 for men and 44 for women, in total.
But we have much to celebrate, including a recent decision by the College Board to award a new credential to high school students who complete Advance Placement coursework in science, technology, engineering and math, also called STEM. The decision is a welcome motivator for young men, and a growing number of young women, to stay the science-based course.
Even better motivation comes from female science leaders blessed with killer intellect and a delightful sense of the playful.
After the Hunt flap, many women in the field took to twitter with the ironic hashtag #distractinglysexy.
One scientist tweeted that she was “really glad that Curie [as in Marie] managed to take a break from crying to discover radium and polonium.” (It should be noted that Curie won two Nobel Prizes.)
Another scientist donned her head-to-toe white lab suit, then joked that she knew how “distracting” she was to male scientists.
A third hovered over cheetah poop to make the same point.
Spell your future STEM. Don’t be distracted by silliness or sexism.
Partner up in the lab with people, regardless of gender, whom you respect, scientists who have integrity and the greater good in their minds and hearts. And don’t be afraid to use humor when warranted.
Here’s a funny story: Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner, author of “Lay Down Your Arms,” was the first woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1905. It was a career pinnacle that blossomed in part due to a mutually respectful and collaborative friendship she enjoyed with a fellow scientist, who was male.
Nobody believed in Von Suttner’s competence more than he did. His name?
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum.