You would have to be living under a rock to not have heard about the comments that Sir Tim Hunt made to a group of female Korean researchers. After calling “girls” in laboratories “trouble” amongst worse remarks, Professor Hunt has lost his appointment at UCL, has had the Royal Society distance itself from him and suffered the slings and arrows of the mainstream media (London Mayor Boris Johnson dubbed them “the ferocious stinging bees of the twitterspehere”). Some believe the fallout was an overreaction, but justified or not, the reaction from both the public and the academic communities was swift and firm: it was an unacceptable thing to “say” to female researchers. After some reflection on these events, however, I started wondering why we do not levy the same consequences on those who “do” unacceptable things.
As many of our readers are aware, I have recently taken up a position as a group leader at the University of Cambridge, and in that transition from postdoctoral fellow, I have become even more acutely aware of the severe problems that still exist when it comes to equality amongst male and female researchers. These are not things that are said in public, but rather they are structural and personality barriers that stay behind closed doors. These actions are sometimes subconscious bias (which is difficult to fix at the best of times), but often they are outright bigotry – all of this at the houses of free thought known as universities. Professor Fiona Watt – a real juggernaut in stem cell research – wrote a fantastic piece in eLife a couple of years back about her 30 years of experiences and interviews with female researchers. I encourage a read (and a cry).
As part of my new position, I have sought advice from colleagues from across the world and some of the advice received and conversations had have appalled me – and there seems to be very little recourse for how to enact systemic change. For example, I sat with another junior group leader discussing strategies for hiring a postdoctoral scientist. I explained that I only had one position and needed to be very careful about choosing the right person. He agreed, and then shot a knowing look at me and said, “Just don’t hire a woman, if they get pregnant, you’re screwed.”
Perhaps this could be explained away with the same logic that a small business owner might use – if operations depends on one or two people, the retraining alone could stop a business from ever succeeding. It still makes me really sad that people have (and act on) these thoughts. However, I see this as a structural issue, addressable by progressive policies that alleviate the problem. For example, one solution is to strive for men and women to be equally “risky” and this could be achieved if men took paternity leave at the same or at least similar levels (a future post will detail options for how to manage this in academia).
The second example I want to share, however, is character-based and much more difficult to address; it’s a people problem. My department’s faculty members (especially the more senior ones) are mostly male – this is not the exception and has had much ink spilled previously. Perhaps this will change with time, but my recent experiences suggest that there are many out there who passively discriminate against early career female scientists.
Just this month, I was at a conference drinks reception speaking with two male colleagues and the topic shifted to a rising star in the clinician-scientist world. This researcher was climbing the ladder quickly, was attracting lots of funding, and she was female. While I grant that her publication record may not have been as stellar as some in her position, the comment out of one colleague’s mouth made my hair stand on end – “she would never be so successful if she wasn’t a woman.” I wonder if this same person could even fathom a male scientist being in a position that he did not deserve relative to others’ achievements? Or perhaps that he only got his position because he was male?
In the end, Sir Tim Hunt was wrong to say the things he said, no doubt about it. However, there were certainly a lot of privileged colleagues nodding along in agreement with his comments. Let’s root them out, refuse to nod along in meetings or back room conversations, and stand up against the male chauvinism that is still perpetuated in academic circles.