Despite how far we’ve come, scientists have yet to solve the problem of sexism.
The trouble with girls in science is “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry,” said Sir Tim Hunt, a University College London biochemist. Though his statements were met with laughter and applause from his audience, the Association of British Science Writers exposed Hunt’s remarks.
As outcry and calls for resignation of Hunt ensued from women and men across various fields, female scientists embraced their distaste of the comments by tweeting pictures of themselves in standard lab safety clothing, from hazmat suits to goggles, with the hashtag #DistractinglySexy. Hunt and several of his colleagues insisted his comments were in jest, not to be taken seriously.
And despite the professor’s support of women entering science, journalists and scientists criticized his statements in ignorance of the challenges women face in science. In response to the outcry, senior faculty at UCL asked Hunt to resign from his position.
Though women surely aren’t distracting the men in science labs, these reactions distract us from the real issues. Focusing on individual cases of sexism blinds us from the larger issues.
Like other fields, science has shifted focus away from blatant discriminatory actions and toward the institutionalized, subconscious effects of prejudice and bias pervading through our habits. The realities of harassment manifest as an unfortunate example of these unnoticed habits. As Laura Lopez, writer for the LA Times, put it, “The problem of sexual harassment in academia, particularly in the sciences, is much larger than any individual offender.”
When a woman experiences harassment, she faces a number of obstacles in seeking justice. If she reports it to authority figures, will others understand? And, if so, will faculty or administration take action? If a woman follows through on reporting the case, universities might just amount it to nothing.
However, even in light of all the struggles women face in science, the reaction to Hunt’s comments was completely inappropriate. The toxicity of decrying Hunt on social media hastily without an appropriate defense shows that, rather than addressing real issues of sexism, we prefer to hunt down individuals.
In addition, as scientists and journalists looked into the true events of Hunt’s comments, it became apparent the events reported by the ABSW were not completely true. Hunt’s comments might have been taken out of context selectively. Despite this, the ABSW has refused to investigate the issue or give value to these complaints. In response, scientists like Sir Colin Blakemore have resigned from the ABSW, according to Robin McKie of the Guardian.
Reactionary undertones to demonize wrongdoers as public enemies, as with the witch hunt for Hunt, are only unfair ways to chastise others. We’re still far from solving the real issues in a fair, justified manner.