Stereotype 1, stereotype 2, stereotype 3

Dorothy Bishop in the Times Higher on the trouble with jokes about girls.

Personally, I think we should be allowed to criticise the policies of our institutions and to debate robustly with those whose beliefs are at odds with our basic values. However, when we are talking about the fundamental biological characteristics of the individual, it is a different matter.

If we say derogatory comments are acceptable in the context of a joke, this basically allows anything, because anything can be construed as a joke post hoc. Suppose someone said: “Let me tell you about my trouble with blacks. Three things happen when they’re in the lab: (stereotype 1), (stereotype 2), (stereotype 3).” I think most educated people would regard this as unacceptable, even if the speaker subsequently argues that they were being ironic. However, substitute “girls” for “blacks” and for many people it becomes OK.

So very many people.

I also think that academic institutions have the right to dissociate themselves from someone who brings them into disrepute by using racist or sexist language. Gender equality is very much on the agenda of academic institutions and funding bodies. Many universities with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) departments have seriously engaged with the Athena SWAN initiatives to address gender inequality in the workplace; the Royal Society and the European Research Council have come under fire for the low success rates of female grant applicants, and both organisations have taken this criticism seriously and are examining ways to ensure their processes are transparent and fair. Having a high-profile figure make a sexist joke in a public forum undermines such initiatives, and places the organisations in a difficult position whereby they either appear to condone sexism or risk being attacked for political correctness. Sexist language, however jokey, shows an insensitivity to gender issues that is at odds with the core values of most academic institutions. Calling this out is an indication of a commitment to women’s right to fair treatment and not a threat to academic freedom.

That seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it?


  1. chris61 says

    Regarding what happened to Tim Hunt, no, it doesn’t for reasons explained in the comments at DB’s post.

  2. Saad says

    Richard Powell, #2

    I don’t understand. What facts weren’t established? Is there some doubt in your mind as to exactly what he said?

  3. says

    Not to mention, who demanded anyone’s resignation?

    Not to mention, this post was intended to be about general principles, not a particular person.

  4. says

    #5: My comment didn’t name any names, but was also couched in terms of general principles. The quoted article takes as its starting point a high profile case very much centred on a particular person. Someone at UCL reportedly demanded (and got) that individual’s resignation, on the basis of a single tweet by another person who attended an event where he spoke. I questioned whether this was fair.

    #4: There is little doubt over what Sir Tim Hunt actually said, as the (London) Times has published a recording of his self-deprecating “speech” (actually an informal toast) which concludes “Congratulations everybody, because I hope, I hope, I hope — I really hope — there is nothing holding you down, especially not monsters like me.” These remarks do not seem to me to compromise women’s rights to fair treatment – indeed they seem to support them.

    I’ve appreciated this blog for the best part of a decade and have valued its support for values I hold dear, if that doesn’t sound too pompous. These are my first comments here and I’m making them because I fear you’ve misread this situation, not because I want to pick an argument or support sexism. But I can accept that it is me, rather than you, who has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. I shall now revert to dormancy.

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