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The Black Hole

The Tim Hunt saga: Passive sexism is no better


You would have to be living under a rock to not have heard about the comments that Sir Tim Hunt made to a group of female Korean researchers. After calling “girls” in laboratories “trouble” amongst worse remarks, Professor Hunt has lost his appointment at UCL, has had the Royal Society distance itself from him and suffered the slings and arrows of the mainstream media (London Mayor Boris Johnson dubbed them “the ferocious stinging bees of the twitterspehere”). Some believe the fallout was an overreaction, but justified or not, the reaction from both the public and the academic communities was swift and firm: it was an unacceptable thing to “say” to female researchers. After some reflection on these events, however, I started wondering why we do not levy the same consequences on those who “do” unacceptable things.

As many of our readers are aware, I have recently taken up a position as a group leader at the University of Cambridge, and in that transition from postdoctoral fellow, I have become even more acutely aware of the severe problems that still exist when it comes to equality amongst male and female researchers. These are not things that are said in public, but rather they are structural and personality barriers that stay behind closed doors. These actions are sometimes subconscious bias (which is difficult to fix at the best of times), but often they are outright bigotry – all of this at the houses of free thought known as universities.  Professor Fiona Watt – a real juggernaut in stem cell research – wrote a fantastic piece in eLife a couple of years back about her 30 years of experiences and interviews with female researchers. I encourage a read (and a cry).

As part of my new position, I have sought advice from colleagues from across the world and some of the advice received and conversations had have appalled me – and there seems to be very little recourse for how to enact systemic change. For example, I sat with another junior group leader discussing strategies for hiring a postdoctoral scientist. I explained that I only had one position and needed to be very careful about choosing the right person. He agreed, and then shot a knowing look at me and said, “Just don’t hire a woman, if they get pregnant, you’re screwed.”

Perhaps this could be explained away with the same logic that a small business owner might use – if operations depends on one or two people, the retraining alone could stop a business from ever succeeding. It still makes me really sad that people have (and act on) these thoughts. However, I see this as a structural issue, addressable by progressive policies that alleviate the problem. For example, one solution is to strive for men and women to be equally “risky” and this could be achieved if men took paternity leave at the same or at least similar levels (a future post will detail options for how to manage this in academia).

The second example I want to share, however, is character-based and much more difficult to address; it’s a people problem. My department’s faculty members (especially the more senior ones) are mostly male – this is not the exception and has had much ink spilled previously. Perhaps this will change with time, but my recent experiences suggest that there are many out there who passively discriminate against early career female scientists.

Just this month, I was at a conference drinks reception speaking with two male colleagues and the topic shifted to a rising star in the clinician-scientist world. This researcher was climbing the ladder quickly, was attracting lots of funding, and she was female. While I grant that her publication record may not have been as stellar as some in her position, the comment out of one colleague’s mouth made my hair stand on end – “she would never be so successful if she wasn’t a woman.” I wonder if this same person could even fathom a male scientist being in a position that he did not deserve relative to others’ achievements? Or perhaps that he only got his position because he was male?

In the end, Sir Tim Hunt was wrong to say the things he said, no doubt about it. However, there were certainly a lot of privileged colleagues nodding along in agreement with his comments. Let’s root them out, refuse to nod along in meetings or back room conversations, and stand up against the male chauvinism that is still perpetuated in academic circles.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Interested party / June 18, 2015 at 14:07

    Dr. Kent notes a couple of instances where unnamed colleagues made unfair, sexist comments about hiring women in his field. In response to a colleague’s objection to hiring a woman postdoc because she might get pregnant is to propose a social revolution: encourage young men to take paternity leaves (presumably as long as the maternity leaves their female colleagues would take). His heart is in the right place, but good luck with that!

    In his second example, he says his “hair stood on end” when a male colleague belittled a rising star by saying she wouldn’t be so successful if she wasn’t a woman. Dr. Kent doesn’t tell us how he responded to this colleague, but a small step that we all can make is to call out colleagues, junior and senior, when they make statements like that. It can be more difficult to confront someone you known (and admire) for making sexist or racist statements than to use social media to relate stories about unnamed colleagues — but I would wager it potentially has greater positive effect.

    • David / June 18, 2015 at 15:13

      Thanks for your comment Interested Party – I’ll be proposing some ideas over the summer about progressive ways to address the parental leave issue, so stay tuned for those. I think it will require substantial effort from many sectors to fix, but we do have to start somewhere. To be fair we have already come a long way to have men taking parental leave at the tenure track stage at all (I know several who have done so).

      Regarding the unnamed colleagues comment – I’m not out to start a witch hunt on individuals (I think the problems are systemic and need to be addressed as such), but I can assure you that my response to my colleague bore the same level of disgust that I shared in this entry. I believe that things can change, but it is important to get people to recognise the problem first (e.g., when they are in the presence of passive sexism) before they can react to it.

      All that said, I completely see what you mean about the power differential – it is really hard for anyone to directly confront senior colleagues who have a hand in promotions, collaborations, etc. I would note though that there are senior people (male and female) pushing for change and supporting them and the changes they are trying to make is definitely a start.

      Again, thanks for your contribution.

  2. SB / June 18, 2015 at 15:22

    Great post Dave.

  3. Another Interested Party / June 18, 2015 at 17:00

    I agree with the bulk of what you wrote in the above post. However, I’m concerned about the tone these conversations, and most politicised discussions, take in the face of public opinion. You mentioned a phenomenon that occurs in all walks of life: people are less politically-correct in private than in public. This is entirely essential for honest dialogue; popular views aren’t always right. A potential oversight on your part was the trust inferred to you by those people when they spoke their minds; you should have rejoiced in the chance to challenge their ideas, not have your hair stand on end; if we all become bristly and get our backs up, we’ll get nowhere fast. Lastly, your solution to the actual problem (men and women are different) of having men take equal paternity leave may work in academia, albeit slow progress, but it’s a non-starter in other industries. Why not mandate all work places to have 50% women employees but transfer their maternity leave to the father (minus the first month)? Men are just as capable of looking after children in my experience.

  4. S Maltby / June 18, 2015 at 20:23

    Excellent article again Dave. Good to see the topic covered, it’s a very hard one to address.

    I am personally in the midst of sharing parental leave during my post-doc in Australia. The university very generously allows us to split parental leave allowances between spouses (as long as both spouses work for the university. My wife and I made the mutual decision to split it roughly equally, with our priority being that we both get quality time bonding with our new son.

    That being said, I really do worry about what impact the decision will have on each of our careers and only time will tell. I have been told by numerous colleagues/mentors that it will have a negative impact. I believe that this could be partially dampened by the sections on funding application to address career disruptions. But again, from very senior researchers I have been told that citing parental leave (particularly as a male) on application will be seen as weakness and a decreased desire to succeed in research.

    We have made a decision that we think is important for our life going forward, but it will be interesting to see how it pans out in terms of “career success”.

  5. Courteney / June 21, 2015 at 02:41

    Thank you for bringing attention to this key point: news-catching issues like these are not simply a case of a few bad eggs making headlines; rather, these ‘bad eggs’ survive and thrive because they are in/create an environment where latent sexism is commonplace enough that many people don’t think twice about throwing out sexist comments such as the situations you have described. Thank you for focusing this discussion on underlying sexism that, in many cases, may have come to be seen as commonplace and inoffensive, and recognising their contribution to the greater problem.