by Robyn Banks
Last week Nobel Prize winning scientist, Sir Tim Hunt, addressed an audience of senior female scientists at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls”, he said, “Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.” This was reportedly met with stony silence, which is hardly a surprise. He later clarified that, although the comments were intended as a “joke”, he meant what he said and was just trying to be “honest, actually”. Women present at the conference took to twitter to voice their discomfort, sparking a twitter storm of derision, humour and critique. The story made the national press and less than 48 hours later, Sir Tim Hunt had resigned from his faculty position at University College London.
This week, the Daily Mail published a story by Sarah Vine titled ‘March of the feminist bullies!’. In it she referred to the complaining women as humourless “feminazis”, as “stupid, pampered, spoilt” and lamented the fact that “men like [Tim Hunt] can’t be allowed to go around the place making giant scientific breakthroughs of the kind that may one day lead to, oh I don’t know, a cure for cancer, unless and until they have fully submitted to the will of the mob”. And, in true sisterly fashion, wrote that she despaired of her sex.
The article may have left many of us spluttering over our “extra helpings of non GM organic muesli” that somebody could put less research in to an article than most of us do for your average Facebook comment, and then be paid for it. For if Sarah Vine had dug a little deeper she might have found that far from an innocent joke from an out of touch dinosaur, Hunt’s comments were representative of far greater systemic problems affecting the women attending the conference.
Women in STEM face enough trouble because of their gender as it is. The most obvious thing to point to would be the pay gap, but there are also significantly less women actually employed in STEM fields. A survey of academic field experiences found that 70% of women had experienced harassment in the field, and 26% had experienced sexual assault. Yet another double blind study found that women were consistently judged as less capable and employable than their identically qualified male counterparts.
These are structural inequalities, but these comments from Tim Hunt are just the most recent in a long line of recently publicised attacks on women in science, such as the Science Mag advice column which advised a woman to put up with her supervisor looking down her top, and the peer reviewer who advised two female postdoc evolutionary biologists to find a male co-author for their manuscript.
it’s these little things that challenge women’s rights to exist in these spaces.
Women deal daily with these minor attacks, called ‘microagressions’ in feminist circles — little things- a joke, a comment, a t-shirt slogan or an instruction to leave their actual work to make tea or coffee. However, minor as they may be, they are repetitive and wearing and it’s these little things that challenge women’s rights to exist in these spaces. They make women feel uncomfortable and insinuate we are less — less capable, less deserving, less credible. It happens constantly, day in, day out and in private. And for the most part, we put up with it with grace. Tim Hunt’s public comments provided an opportunity to pull this sort of casual, unthinking sexism in to the national conversation and to say “This sort of thing is not okay”.
Sarah Vine thinks that women standing up for themselves like this gives the feminist movement a bad name, although if that’s all it takes to put you off the concept of equal rights you probably wouldn’t have made a great feminist anyway. But I wonder, what harms the movement for women’s rights more — criticism of microagressions or the microagressions themselves; the daily reinforcement of women’s status as secondary to men?
And, to suspend temporarily my incredulity at the near construction of a straw man argument linking feminism to cancer, if a cure is what Sarah Vine truly cares about, won’t excluding 50% of the population do more harm to our ability to cure cancer than to exclude somebody holding attitudes which are highly likely to make his students and co-workers uncomfortable?
Women speaking up for themselves is too often
received as just a little bit too strong
It’s a testament to feminism that enough women spoke out to make this a national story. When men perceive themselves as getting less respect than they consider they deserve, they tend to stand up and demand it, and you only have to look at history for evidence of this. But the movement that faces the most uphill battle in gaining this respect, even from other women, is the only major liberation movement that presupposes male authority. Women speaking up for themselves is too often received as just a little bit too strong.
In light of the daily grind so many women have to endure because of their gender, the burden of proof rests on those who argue that the supposed genius of this Great White Male should allow him to engage in oppressive behaviours towards others, and women have better things to do than listen to the ignorant ramblings of Ms Vine, the wife of senior Tory Michael Gove, who probably doesn’t consider herself spoilt and pampered at all. Like, oh, I don’t know — curing cancer.
So forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for a man who accused women of being unable to take criticism and then threw his toys out of his pram and quit his job because people criticised him. Now hand over your lunch money, or I might write a mean tweet about you.