Magmanimous

I want to make a comment about the scientist Tim Hunt, who was recently sacked for making some disparaging remarks about women. They weren’t exactly disparaging but they were not complimentary and although I think his intention was to be funny, they were not. However I don’t think this is a good reason for him to have lost his job. We don’t sack people for making politically incorrect remarks. 

There’s something disturbingly extremist about what happened to Tim Hunt. It’s not unlike the Islamic extremists who murder cartoonists for poking fun at their religion. We have to allow people to say what they want, no matter how unfunny or offensive it might seem. We don’t want a society like ISIS where people are not free to speak their mind. We definitely don’t want to sack someone for something they’ve said especially when they work in a University.

As a woman, I also want to be able to make fun of men from time to time. For instance, when my husband goes looking for something without success I accuse him of having a manlook. When men get sick they get manflu. There’s also mansplaining and mantrum and and various other derogatory words about men that are quite useful. Women can’t be sensitive when it goes the other way or we risk losing the freedom to do the same thing ourselves. 

I’m on holiday this week and we’re off to somewhere exciting for a few days! 

29 thoughts on “Magmanimous

  1. His position (at UCL at least) was only honorary, so he didn’t really lose a job – well not one that paid him a salary. Also, being honorary, I don’t think he had any legal protection. He’d also – I think – never actually been formally employed by UCL. My personal view is that if it was a full academic position, then he should be free to say what he wishes (within the law) without being fired. If it is an honorary position, and he say something that embarasses the institution that’s given him the position, then they should be free to simply take away that honorary position.

    1. Yes, there’s probably a bit of difference between being a paid employee and having an honorary position. Universities are also free to sack whoever they want within the law but this was an over-reaction in my opinion and makes the university look bad. Sacking someone for saying something embarrassing, and also doing so without giving him the chance to explain his side (or so I read), and not taking into account his apology, is all very extreme and unfair.

      1. Did he actually apologise? I thought he’d defended it as essentially being true. He might have done the standard “I’m sorry if I offended”, but that’s not actually apologising for what was said, that’s just apologising for offending. As far as I’m aware, he seems to really think that there is an issue with women in labs. As I understand it, his argument is that men get distracted by women. If so, the problem is the men, not the women. I don’t really have a problem with someone who can’t get this distinction losing their honorary positions. There may well be things that I’ve missed and I do feel a little sorry for someone who has been very successful, having all this negative publicity at this stage of their career. However, there are bigger issues here than a Nobel Laureate losing an honorary position because they said something silly during a talk.

      2. It might help to read the full quote of what he said which most media did not report:

        “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. 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. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?

        “Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

        http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/richard-dawkins-demands-apology-from-sir-tim-hunts-critics-and-claims-leaked-transcript-shows-sexist-comments-were-lighthearted-banter-10341160.html

        He was making fun of himself. Definitely not a crime, in my opinion, and not worth all the fuss.

      3. Okay, I agree that that makes it seem like he really was poking fun at himself. I still think, though, that it was a poor thing to say. I also still have no real problem with a senior male scientist who can’t quite work out what is appropriate and what isn’t, losing some honorary position.

      4. I’m not really sure how those honorary positions work. Do they often get stripped from those who hold them? It seems like a pretty extreme thing to do, especially to a Nobel Prize winner, a very good scientist, and someone who by most accounts is very nice.

        I don’t want to defend what he said because as far as I’m concerned it shouldn’t matter. If he wanted to make a joke about women then that’s fine with me. The reaction to his comment by the university and by the Twitter mob is far more damaging to women and feminism than what he actually said. It makes us look intolerant and unforgiving.

        I held off writing about this topic for quite a while because I felt it was completely blown out of proportion already and I didn’t want to add to that but I think what happened to him is very unfair.

        I understand that we have a problem with women in science but blaming Tim Hunt and his unfunny joke for this is not going to solve the problem. My view is that this problem is better solved by providing extended maternity leave – I stayed home with my children for 7 years and I doubt many university positions would have held onto a job for me for that long – and also offering part-time positions with more flexible working hours. I like to collect my children from school everyday and again, I can’t imagine many university jobs would allow for that.

      5. As I understand it, the honorary positions are given to people with an association with a university (a collaboration) and who are seen as being of a sufficient high calibre that the university would like them to have an explicit link. It doesn’t really mean very much. They don’t get paid. They don’t necessarily get an office. There is sometimes a requirement to do something (maybe teach a small amount). It doesn’t mean a great deal and not having one doesn’t mean that you can’t maintain a collaboration at that university.

        Although it may now be being perceived as intolerance, I actually thought the #distractinglysexy response was quite clever. Some people did go over the top, but most of what I saw was people mocking this idea that you couldn’t work in a lab with women because they were distracting. I also think that this illustrates how strongly some feel about this. I don’t think we’re even really close to resolving the gender issues within the sciences and it would certainly be unfortunate if this situation caused more harm than good. I think people should maybe realise just how strongly some feel about this and use it to try and improve things, rather than excusing something inappropriate because some of the responses were maybe inappropriate too.

      6. … rather than excusing something inappropriate because some of the responses were maybe inappropriate too.

        I’m not excusing something inappropriate because the response was inappropriate. I’m excusing his “joke” because it wasn’t that bad, it was also misinterpreted, and he also apologised for it. I never actually followed the Twitter response and your comment makes me realise how seriously wrong they got it. He never said that women shouldn’t work in labs because they’re a distraction. Some people are quick to jump to conclusions and quick to condemn others and pass judgement without knowing the full story.

      7. Sorry, I wasn’t meaning you excusing it, I was meaning it more generally. I really just meant that we should be careful of using that some might have over-reacted to downplay the significance of what has been said.

        He never said that women shouldn’t work in labs because they’re a distraction.

        Hmmm, he may not have said they shouldn’t work in labs, but he did suggest that it was distracting – or am I missing something? I simply interpreted that #distractinglysexy as people mocking the idea that women in labs are distracting. I thought it was a clever way to respond, in that it was mocking what he had said, rather than getting all vitriolic.

        Maybe we should agree to disagree :-), but what do you think of the scenario at the end of this post?

      8. I think you are missing something. He says in the quote above, “Science needs women”. His joke is referring to the fact that he married a fellow scientist who was working in the same lab as him and they are still married. I’m guessing this is what he means about being honest. If he made this comment and then went on to try to prevent women from working in labs because they are a distraction then by all means fire him. But that’s not what he meant and from what I’ve read from female scientists who have worked with him, he’s not guilty of that either. The example at the bottom of the post you linked to is essentially the same thing and so we should wait for more information before passing judgement.

      9. One more thing regarding the article you linked to with the same scenario, the guy was taken aside and presumably questioned about what he meant. In the case of Tim Hunt, apparently the dean rang his wife while Hunt was on a flight and his wife – who had no idea what was going on – was told to tell him he had to stand down. There was no discussion with him personally about “what on earth were you thinking when you said that?”. Maybe they wanted to get rid of him anyway?

        Yes, it was a dumb thing for him to say. I say dumb things all the time but thankfully I think our actions are more important. If Tim Hunt had spent his career trying to keep women out of science and out of labs then I would feel differently but from what I’ve read that’s not the case.

    2. I do agree that it would have been better to have waited and assessed the situation before insisting that he stand down. Knee jerk reactions are rarely wise. I do think, though, that there is a fundamental difference between an employee (who has the right to expect due process) and a person on an honorary position, who does not. It might decent to do so, but the university isn’t (I think) obliged to do so. In a sense, if they felt that they were going to be embarassed by this, they could ask him to step down even if he had a good reason for saying what he said. That doesn’t change that waiting and speaking to him first would probably have been better to spoken to him first and they may end up regretting doing so anyway. In a sense, I suspect that they were trying to work out what would be best for them as an institution. At the time, it may have seemed better to ask him to step down. Now, I suspect that they’re wishing they’d at least waited a while first.

      1. I think I’ve put the above the right place. I did hear somewhere – I think – that he’d run the joke past the organisers of the meeting who weren’t keen on him using it, but he did so anyway. If I can find a link to that I’ll add it.

  2. My wife accuses me of manlook 🙂

    I often worry a lot that what is funny to me may not be funny or worse may offend, others. So I rather shut my mouth and am loving it.

    Have a great holiday.

  3. What is galling about this is the misleading reporting that went with it to start with and only latterly, as your quote above points out it wasn’t said as the initial reports made out. I think he was naive to assume disparaging remarks wouldn’t be taken out of context but that’s probably his worst ‘crime’. The trouble is, I think, that this sort of sexism still exists to hold women back so to make a joke of it is shaky territory at best.

    1. Yes, it was a poor choice for a joke but still not reason enough for what happened to him. And yes, the quote was only reported in part and in most cases the bit immediately afterwards where he says, “but seriously” was omitted.

  4. If I told you what my wife says to me, she may go to jail. But I would never fire her.

    Another holiday? You always seem to be taking a holiday 🙂 Where to this time?

  5. it seems ironic that as media such as this allow the rest of society to become increasingly open and robust in debating ideas the university world seems to become more and more limited in what ideas people can express when you’d think supposedly intelligent people would be a little more thoughtful in their reactions to hearing things they don’t like, or even as seem to be the case here, a bit more careful to check they understood what was said in the first place

    1. If someone at a university wanted to write an essay about why they think women should not be allowed to work in a lab then we should allow them to do so, on matter how much we disagree. But in this case that’s not what Tim Hunt was proposing anyway and people have been quick to accuse him of advocating for something he doesn’t.

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