Just that little drop

Uta Frith FRS has an excellent, hope-restoring article on the Royal Society’s science policy blog In Verba.

Little did I know that, having just started as chair of our new Diversity Committee, that gender bias would suddenly come into the spotlight of public opinion. This followed the unacceptable remarks at a public event attributed to one of our most distinguished Fellows. Sir Tim Hunt was baffled by the effect of his words on others, and I admit that I too was baffled, but for very different reasons.

His remarks at first seemed to me just a drop in the bucket of millions of similar ones made every day about women in the workplace, often by decent men who would be horrified to be regarded as misogynists. For me they confirmed an age old stereotype of women as trouble, so old that it goes back to Adam and Eve. But they were the drop that finally caused the bucket to flow over. They became a catalyst for a deep-seated bitterness to pour out of people, not only women, who simply felt that enough was enough. This was an outpouring waiting to happen. It needed just that little drop.

It’s so true about that drop in the bucket observation. The only thing I would add is that it’s not just in the workplace, it’s everywhere – which of course is why it’s so pervasive in the workplace. And vice versa. There are millions of feedback loops re-enforcing the kind of thing throughout the culture.

That of course – now I think of it – partly explains Tim Hunt’s bafflement and the bafflement of his enraged supporters like Dawkins and Cox. It was “just a joke” and it was just one of millions like it and it was trivial and it was totally normal so what is the big deal??

You could agree with all that, as Dawkins and Cox and the rest of them do – you could agree that he shouldn’t be singled out for something at once so trivial and so normal. But you could also (instead) say yes but we’ve been trying to do away with that kind of “normal” belittling and dismissal for at least half a century. Half a fucking century, dude, don’t you think you could start to catch up by now? Yes, we know it’s an entrenched part of human history that people like to sneer at people below them in the pecking order, but that’s a bad feature of being human and we should change it.

But also it was the setting. Getting up in front of a group of women scientists and telling one of those stupid tired jokes to them. That’s why the “joke” was the drop that finally caused the bucket to flow over.

What is the bitterness about? Injustice, plain and simple. And it coincides with my own anxieties as chair of the Diversity committee. The bitterness is sustained by the strong feeling that women have not had a fair chance to succeed in science. This is a serious problem in science in general, but it is also a problem for the Royal Society. It is a fact that only 105 out of 1569 Fellows are women (6.7%). It is a fact that only 22 out of 106 of the awards and medals given by the Society over the last 5 years were given to women and that over those five years only 22% of the successful candidates on the Royal Society’s University Research Fellows and Sir Henry Dale Fellows were women.

She goes on to say what the RS is doing to make things better.

As the case of Tim Hunt has shown, prejudice is unacceptable even if meant in jest. The Royal Society as an institution quickly dissociated itself from his remarks. It was necessary to affirm the truth of its genuine wish to do away with the obstacles that stand in the way of women’s careers in science. To do nothing would send a signal that it is acceptable to trivialise women’s achievement in science.

Once it was a story, at least. If there had been no story, the Royal Society’s doing nothing wouldn’t have sent any kind of signal – but there was a story. You could say it’s Tim Hunt’s bad luck that there was a story when there’s no story about the millions of other “jokes”…or you could say that given the setting and the audience, Tim Hunt made his own bad luck.

How can we make science careers more attractive for talented and brilliant people who might be lost to science? What can we do to make labs and workplaces more supportive and the people in charge more accepting and respectful of people who are not currently part of the ingroup?

A number of Fellows including Athene Donald, Dorothy Bishop and David Colquhoun have spontaneously written about their determination to work for the advancement of women. We now have a strategy for Diversity, and this does not only encompass women, but also other currently disadvantaged groups. For example, we have a series of case studies that showcase different roads to science and unusual role models.

I believe that for us at the Royal Society the main problem is not overt prejudice, but the hidden anachronistic assumptions and attitudes, the sort that sometimes surface in jokes…[O]ur enlightened selves exert rather weak control on our everyday behaviour, and every one of us is only too ready to think of themselves as less prejudiced than the average person. It will be very difficult to root out the often subtle put-downs of women and other members of out-groups that slip into references or discussions. We can detect them more easily in others than in ourselves, and therefore we can help each other by calling them out. Calling out unacceptable remarks made by Fellows in public is a case in point.

But only if you first hold diplomatic talks with Richard Dawkins in hopes of persuading him to stop shouting about “witch hunts” and “lynch mobs” whenever someone does call out a subtle put-down. Without that, I fear our two great peoples will forever be at war.

At the Diversity Committee we are considering a number of activities that might tame our inner dinosaur and celebrate our enlightened phoenix. I will report on these activities as they happen, and they will actively involve the Fellowship, the grant holders, the alumni, the staff, in short, everybody connected with the Royal Society.

All of us on the committee are determined that what we do is not merely a gesture. There will be no overnight solution. We are in it for the long haul.

Good stuff. Sadly, the comments are full of people shouting about witch hunts.


  1. infovore says

    Norms are changing, and while he stayed in place, the front-line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior overtook Tim Hunt and he got caught in the crossfire. Funny thing is, he’s at or near the end of his career in any case, due to his age. If you wanted to make an example of someone without destroying a potentially valuable (salvageable?) career, it would be hard find a better pick. So two cheers for Tim Hunt’s “volunteering” for the role. Two cheers only, because apparently he meant it before he remembered that he was only joking.

  2. Crimson Clupeidae says

    It’s not just the workplace….I see a lot of it on my fb page, not so much because my close friends are that bad (thankfully), but some of the interest groups I’m in (motorcycles, especially) are rife with casual sexism. The worst part about it to me seems to be that it’s so pervasive that mush of it comes from women (like using ‘pussy’ as an insult on a regular basis). It’s odd to see women, who are a distinct minority within the motorcycle world, so casually use these terms. They have to be aware of how bad the sexism is, but it seems a lot of them are ok with it because it gets them lots of attention. I guess tirbalism and wanting to fit in are much more important to a lot of people. 🙁

    Sorry to derail. I actually have some things I’ve written (on fb mostly) that I’d like to run by the collective here for feedback…where would be a good place to post it? Thanks.

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