Thinking about Tim Hunt

This post comes in pretty late, but it's one that needed some long mulling and even longer feedback. Here are my thoughts on overcoming cultural sexism, wrapped up in an analysis of Tim Hunt's resignation from University College London.

Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt has resigned from his honorary professorship at University College London after comments to the World Conference of Science Journalists that many have termed ‘sexist’.

The reaction to Sir Tim’s resignation has been predictably dimorphic. Many have said the comments are another assault on women’s prospects in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, and are marked by references to hundreds of years of systemic oppression against women: the infantilisation of women - by referring to them as ‘girls’ in contrast to ‘men’; the notion that women are somehow less ‘rational’ than men, and that women are more prone to negative emotional influence than men.

On the other hand are the standard responses: that those offended are taking the comments in a sincerity that wasn’t intended; that a whining feminist cabal is clucking for noise’s sake, and that our first instinct when a highly-esteemed member of our society makes a non-serious comment should be to forgive, not to condemn.

The second group - which, I hazard, is probably the larger - fundamentally misunderstands the impact these sorts of ‘light-hearted’ comments have in broader society, and have had throughout the ages. I’m going to try and explain why these sorts of comments have a real and negative impact on both pragmatic and moral levels. I’m also going to make a business argument for why such comments are so harmful, and why Sir Tim’s resignation was his only real option.

Disclaimer: I have heard from numerous close sources that Sir Tim’s remarks were taken out of context and he has been utterly misrepresented in media reports. I am sure, then, that he fully understands that the systemic impact of his words are well beyond what he intended. His remarks were founded on a lifetime’s enculturation within a man-dominant society. It is the responsibility of every man to vocally challenge anything that reinforces patriarchal notions of manhood and womanhood. Such an onus is vanishingly small compared to the daily weight of living within a patriarchy as anything other than a man.

So, what’s the problem with these offhand comments?

It’s the pragmatics

In the UK, 13% of STEM jobs belong to women. But we know this, right? This is not news. Why should we care?

We should care because it’s wrong. But more on that later - this paragraph, let’s care because it coincides with a serious skills shortage. 59% of STEM businesses report the shortage as a “serious threat to their business in the UK". In response to this shortage, we are failing to leverage half our available resources with even a modicum of efficiency.

“Well, if you’re not fully utilising half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10”

Bill Gates (attrib.), Saudi Arabia

This isn’t just a problem for the UK. In America, things are still terrible: 24% of STEM jobs are in the hands of women. The skills shortage is a global issue, and figures like Tim Hunt - with global presence and global influence - have the clout to impact a large number of people.

Due in part to the sexism that permeates everyday life for most women, a 'good workplace’ can actually define itself by a relative lack of sexism. STEM jobs have a reputation for being difficult places to work as a woman. As a woman seeking a STEM institution that will allow her to excel - while avoiding a culture of misogyny - comments like Sir Tim’s put up unnecessary barriers.

This is damaging not only to the institution’s reputation - more on that in a minute - but to STEM careers as a whole. Sir Tim’s comments are far from isolated: these beliefs are deeply entrenched throughout society, and the only ways to combat them lie in strong challenges, as quickly as possible. Not doing so will further discourage women from forging STEM careers, which damages the technology prospects of the entire world. Those opposed to Tim Hunt’s comments are not lacking ‘forgiveness’ or being ‘offended’ - they are reacting to the real, systemic practicalities comments like this carry.

It’s the money

University College London (UCL), Tim Hunt’s honour-granting body, invested £10m in outreach programmes for women and minorities between 2013 and 2014 (p.14). From a business perspective, Sir Tim’s comments - and the publicity surrounding them - will result in UCL losing a lot of money. The negative PR will, for reasons outlined above, cost UCL stellar applications. Would-be ‘success cases’ for the outreach expenditure will drop off. UCL will lose grant-making talent and fee-paying undergraduates. The result? Sir Tim’s business value no longer exceeds the liability he is associated with: his resignation makes financial sense. This has nothing to do with ‘offence’, or with ‘forgiveness’: simply that the comments, and the resulting media storm, have depreciated a figurehead’s value to a point where it is no longer sensible to retain him.

It’s the morality

This scant PhD outfit for women is more than a recent controversy: it represents an image of woman thrown at children - of all genders - who are now adults, throughout their lives. Many advertisers, marketers, television programmers, film-makers, and so on have long-relied on presenting women as props for men’s needs.

The insidiousness of this conditioning is terrifying. It's why the critic’s eternal reaction to public accusations of sexism is "no, it can’t be". It's why someone’s ‘offence’ might not make sense, when a comment was clearly intended as a harmless joke. It’s because men - who have been told at almost every opportunity that women come second (save for the tiny incremental moves society is making towards addressing this, about which men tend to spend a lot of time shouting ‘reverse sexism!’ into the wind) - have never had to face such an appalling cultural definition of who they are.

Instead, men are told that they must embody rationality, ownership, strength, and duty. The embers of sexism are lit and stoked by a patriarchal culture: but they only keep half a population warm (plus, fly too high in this empire of machoism and you’ll burn to a crisp). The only way to combat so widespread an ideology is to publicly and vocally oppose it at every opportunity. Is this ’social engineering’? Sure it is. But it’s not the only social engineering going on, and it’s not unopposed: this is the engineering of a reaction to a force that’s kept the machine running in the same direction for thousands of years.


Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association, had this to say concerning Sir Tim’s comments:

“It’s hard to find Sir Tim’s comments funny if you’ve been held back by systemic bias for years”

Imran Khan

Tim Hunt might be a lovely person, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is how the things lovely - and less lovely - people contribute to or detract from a systemic problem. If we were halfway brought up right, we were told as kids “don’t be sexist”, and we internalised that to mean “don’t say sexist things to other people, unless it’s clear that they’re in on the joke”. But this is micro-sexism, and we need to be hitting hard at the macro. For reasons I hope I’ve made clear, the only way to do that is by going out of our way to combat sexism we see. Unfortunately for him, his supporters, and his admirers, Tim Hunt’s resignation is part and parcel of that grander social endeavour. I hope he can see it that way, too.