It’s not all about him

To counteract the bad taste left by Dawkins’s interventions (and if you want to feel even sicker you can always check out Louise Mensch on Twitter, who is in a positive lather of bullying), there is the very intelligent discussion on Athene Donald’s blog. She defends Hunt, but she does it reasonably as opposed to shoutingly. (Although she does use the phrase “lynch mob,” which I really wish people would stop doing.) In particular she says making a fuss about Tim Hunt is easy, and everyone should be doing the less easy things too. She gives a list:

We should all be pro-active, not look the other way. Here’s an easy list to help people make that commitment. Everyone should be able to find one they are in a position to carry out.

  • Call out bad behaviour whenever and wherever you see it – in committees or in the street. Don’t leave women to be victimised;
  • Encourage women to dare, to take risks;
  • Act as a sponsor or mentor (if you are just setting out there will still always be people younger than you, including school children, for whom you can act);
  • Don’t let team members get away with demeaning behaviour, objectifying women or acting to exclude anyone;
  • Seek out and remove microinequities wherever you spot them;
  • Refuse to serve on single sex panels or at conferences without an appropriate level of female invited speakers;
  • Consider the imagery in your department and ensure it represents a diverse group of individuals;
  • Consider the daily working environment to see if anything inappropriate is lurking. If so, do something about it.
  • Demand/require mandatory unconscious bias training, in particular for appointment and promotion panels;
  • Call out teachers who tell girls they can’t/shouldn’t do maths, physics etc;
  • Don’t let the bold (male or female) monopolise the conversation in the classroom or the apparatus in the laboratory, at the expense of the timid (female or male);
  • Ask schools about their progression rates for girls into the traditionally male subjects at A level (or indeed, the traditionally female subjects for boys);
  • Nominate women for prizes, fellowships etc;
  • Tap women on the shoulder to encourage them to apply for opportunities they otherwise would be unaware of or feel they were not qualified for;
  • Move the dialogue on from part-time working equates to ‘isn’t serious’ to part-time working means balancing different demands;
  • Recognize the importance of family (and even love) for men and women;
  • Be prepared to be a visible role model;
  • Gather evidence, data and anecdote, to provide ammunition for management to change;
  • Listen and act if a woman starts hinting there are problems, don’t be dismissive because it makes you uncomfortable;
  • Think broadly when asked to make suggestions of names for any position or role.

Hilda Bastian in particular (no permalink to comments, sorry) says useful things:

It was what happened after he spoke that brings us to the crux of the problem, and why there has been a strong reaction. He had the opportunity to retreat from the position he had taken: he was, however, undeterred and continued to expand on these themes. And people have defended him by arguing, in effect, that demeaning speech is [not] only [not] unacceptable, but not harmful.

Exactly. The incident itself could have been over quickly, but the nested backlashes have caused it to go on and on. I’m more fascinated and appalled by the backlash than I am by the original pedestrian “jokes.”

This has not been an over-reaction to some regrettable gaffes: it’s about his, to use his word, “honest”, beliefs. Those views, and expressing them can do harm, whether or not he personally has discriminated against individual women. They can be hurtful to anyone exposed to them, they can encourage those who do discriminate (and worse) to think it’s socially acceptable to demean women, and they can encourage women to believe the climate in science is one where demeaning remarks are socially acceptable. As Zen Faulkes wrote, career choices can “hang on narrow threads”.

Bolding mine. Again, that item is what makes Dawkins’s behavior so revolting: the way he’s encouraging those who do discriminate and stalk and harass to think it’s socially acceptable – indeed brilliantly clever – to do so. He’s a role model to people like that, and he’s being a horrifically bad one.

The wording here seems to imply that unless it can be proven that there were harmful consequences to particular individual women, then he is not sexist. But many of us see someone speaking about women scientists as “the crying kind” or not when he’s discussing us is sexist behavior, and it’s not the consequences that determine whether or not it is.

All the space devoted to the discussion is not devoted to “demonising” Tim Hunt. It’s largely to debate the issues this raises – how people feel about this climate, about women having pride in themselves and their contributions to the scientific workplace, and about the ugliness unleashed by all the people airing often misogynistic views.

It’s not all about him, even though his comments are the catalyst for a discussion it seems to me more and more clear we need to have. It seems we do indeed have to have a discussion about whether or not demeaning remarks do damage. The concrete list of actions you delineate are fantastic – but we won’t get far if we don’t address the “mountain made up of molehills”, as Virginia Valian put it: “The effect of schemas in professional life is to cause us to slightly, systematically overrate men and underrate women.”



  1. Silentbob says

    Don’t let team members get away with demeaning behaviour, objectifying women or acting to exclude anyone;

    … unless they say, “Now seriously”. Then it’s okay.


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