Disproportionate to what?

While we’re on the subject of Famous Pale Male Scientists Defending Other Famous Pale Male Scientists From Witchy Baying Feminists, there’s also Brian Cox.

The scientist and broadcaster Prof Brian Cox has said it was wrong the way a Nobel laureate scientist was “hounded out” of his university post over controversial comments he made about women working in laboratories.

Cox said the remarks by Sir Tim Hunt had been “very ill-advised” but that the response – which saw him give up positions at University College London (UCL) and the Royal Society – had been disproportionate.

Disproportionate to what?

UCL and the Royal Society want to attract women to science. They don’t want to repel women from science. They don’t want to alienate women already in science. So why is it disproportionate for them to dump a Famous Pale Male Scientist who goes to a conference in a foreign country and gives a talk in which he talks about women as if they were pets or small children?

Here’s what the Royal Society said:

Sir Tim Hunt has today contacted the Royal Society to offer his resignation from the Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee. The Society has accepted that resignation.

It was an awards committee. Is it “disproportional” that they allowed him to resign from that? Is it “disproportional” if they nudged him to resign?

Think about it. He’s on the committee, and he made those dismissive remarks about women…so how trustworthy does the committee appear? Not very. Maybe it would pass over women who should get awards, or maybe it would give awards to women who shouldn’t get them. It’s the wrong sort of committee for Sir Tim Hunt to be on.

I don’t see the disproportion.

The rest of what the RS said:

Sir Tim Hunt’s recent comments relating to women in science have no place in science. The Royal Society believes that too many talented individuals do not fulfil their scientific potential because of issues such as gender discrimination and the Society is committed to helping to put this right.

Sir Tim Hunt has made exceptional contributions to science in terms of his own research on the cell cycle and its implications for our understanding of cancer which led to the award of the Nobel Prize. Over the years he has also supported the careers of many young researchers, often travelling tirelessly to support young people all over the world. It is the great respect that he has earned for his work that has made his recent comments so disappointing, comments he now recognises were unacceptable.

He hasn’t been sent to the North Pole, he’s simply resigned from a committee.

Back to Brian Cox.

Cox acknowledged that while there was a serious issue about the “perceived air of sexism” that deterred some women from pursuing careers in science, he said that he did not believe Hunt should have been treated in the way that he was.

Cox said Hunt was “good person and a great scientist” and that as a man in his 70s, it was perhaps not surprising that Hunt was “slightly unreconstructed”.

That’s not the issue. The point isn’t to punish him, it’s to make UCL and the RS not hostile to women in that particular way. That’s a sensible and reasonable goal. It’s a more important goal than protecting the feelings of Sir Tim Hunt in the wake of his dismissive remarks. I don’t think Brian Cox should be putting Hunt’s feelings ahead of efforts to remove obstacles to women in science.

He told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One programme: “You can make the argument that senior figures in science have to be first of all aware that there is a central problem of women progressing up to the highest levels of science and secondly, therefore, have to be mindful of that and careful of their language.

“On the other side of course, there is the wider problem of trial by social media. People do make ill-advised comments from time to time so is it appropriate to hound someone out of their position at a university or indeed is it appropriate for the university to react in the way UCL in this case did and ask someone to resign or threaten to sack them?”

If it had been a spontaneous remark at the pub, no. But it wasn’t. It was a prepared talk at a professional conference. It’s extraordinary the way defenders of Hunt keep minimizing it. It’s extraordinary that Cox apparently can’t see the problem with Hunt’s saying essentially that women are a big pain in the ass in the lab and should be shunted off into their own labs by themselves. At a professional conference.

“To have a Nobel prize winner – and by all accounts a great scientist and a good person – being hounded out of a position at UCL after all those years of good work and science, I think that’s wrong and disproportionate – with the caveats I mentioned.”

Cox acknowledged that there were problems in getting young women to take up careers in science and engineering, and said there were “big problems” that needed to be addressed when it came to career progression for women.

“There is a problem in science and engineering and the problem is that we don’t have enough women going into certain areas, particularly engineering,” he said.

And blah blah blah blah, but having said that – Tim Hunt should still have those positions from which to make dismissive remarks about women at professional conferences.



  1. says

    Damn, yes, that too. I meant to say about that and forgot.

    Shit. These guys. Minimize, deny, disguise, shrug off, laugh at – anything to say never mind about women, what about my Very Important Male Colleague?

  2. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    It’s infuriating and universal. I just Twittered at him about it.

  3. PatrickG says

    Pshaw, Josh. Your tweet will be added to the hard-sourced, ironclad mountain of evidence for witch-hunts on social media. Much better supported than that “perceived air of sexism” thing, right?

  4. jenniferphillips says

    Later on in his Twitter stream he linked approvingly to the Nature editorial on this issue, which mostly covers proactive responses to eliminate gender bias, etc. in Science, but closes with

    The lot of the female scientist in most developed countries is better than it was a few decades ago — a time that forged the thinking and attitudes of many of today’s senior scientists. But such attitudes continue to prevent equality. It is right to highlight and protest against examples of explicit and implicit bias — of all types — in research. And it is essential that all involved strive for better.

    (my bold emphasis)
    Cox seems most willing to acknowledge that problems exist and must be dealt with, but he apparently believes that it’s not only possible, but preferable, to fix the situation without addressing the individuals who are undeniably contributing to it. That seems…less intelligent than I think he’s probably capable of.

  5. says

    Recently in his Twitter stream he agreed to something I was (yesterday) considering asking in a post…The “imagine Hunt had said this about Pakistani scientists or black scientists, would all these people be calling the reaction disproportionate?” That’s my wording, which I never wrote; the actual question was worded differently but that was the meaning, and he said that’s a very good point.

  6. says

    It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, Tim Hunt talking to a conference and saying that Pakistani scientists should be in separate labs and making some kind of absurd anecdotal generalization about them? But when it’s women – oh that’s just a bad joke, that’s all.

  7. jenniferphillips says

    Well, not all that hard to imagine, really, as it’s not far off from what James Watson has said about POC in STEM (with bonus disparaging comments about women in STEM, natch).

    In response to the ensuing witch-hunts, dear James put his Nobel Prize up for auction, at first claiming that the consequent reduction of speaking gigs had left him impoverished (though he later declared he would donate the $ to charity).

  8. Donnie says

    Is this an appropriate time to make a snarky comment that this is “just an American problem”? Uppity* American feminists worried about the water cooler in the lab and not addressing real problems in the world, dontcha know.

    *Personally, I do not feel comfortable using the word uppity because of the racial connotations in America with the word. However, combined with the previous Pakistani comments, I felt that it would tie the two thoughts together.

  9. says

    All we need now is Massimo Pigluicci, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer to climb onto the bandwagon of stupid and it’ll be ready to, um, bandwagon off into the sunset.

  10. iknklast says

    unreconstructed? Why do we give people a pass because they are old assholes, and we give young assholes a pass because they’re just “being boys”? At what age are we allowed to suggest correctives? Perhaps from the age of 43 years, 2 months and 1 day, and 43 years, 2 months and 2 days? If they happen to make a sexist remark in that particular 24 hour period, we can correct them? Because they are neither young enough to be “boys” nor are they old enough to be “an old man who grew up in a different time”.

    I’m calling bullshit. Women have been calling out this sort of behavior for pretty much the entirety of this man’s adult life, possibly even his entire life (I know my grandmother was calling people out on this long before he would have been born). He’s 10 years older than my husband, and 10 years younger than my father, and both of them know better than this, even though both could be considered seniors.

  11. =8)-DX says

    Right. The problem is women not going to STEM, because they darn shucks just don’t want to… I was almost expecting an estrogen vibe after that.

  12. M E Foley says

    ‘Cox…said there were “big problems” that needed to be addressed when it came to career progression for women.’

    Yep. And one of them is the perception of women scientists as sexy distractions and crybabies. So why does he think that Tim Hunt should get a pass? Tim Hunt’s remarks, and the attitude that spawns them–even if that isn’t his entrenched opinion, and he mis-spoke, which I don’t believe for a second, but let’s just go with that–ARE PART OF THE BIG PROBLEM.

    And it does NO good to sit around saying “Yes, there are problems to be addressed” if you’re not going to address the problem when it rears its ugly sexist head, especially when the central figure demonstrating the problem gives a non-apology in which he says he meant what he said.

    This would be funny if it didn’t so negatively affect all of us: women scientists who’re directly affected by these attitudes, would-be women scientists who may end up in other fields because of the hostile environment, and all the rest of us because the world is being denied the efforts of half of the brains we could be putting to work on scientific questions.

  13. says

    Exactly. Yes there are big problems, and top scientist guys doing the kind of thing Hunt did is one of them, so why why why are you claiming the reaction was disproportionate?

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