Sexist Scientist: I Was Being ‘Honest’

Before Nobel Prize-winning biologist Tim Hunt cast off his sexist comments as an ‘attempt at humor,’ he told his co-panelist something else entirely.

06.16.15 9:35 PM ET

Last week—along with science writers from more than forty countries—I flew to South Korea to participate in the 9th World Conference of Science Journalists. The conference had paired my lecture (Pulitzer Prize winner, 1992, beat reporting) with one by Sir Tim Hunt (Nobel Prize winner, 2001, Physiology or Medicine).

Yes, you are right, these are not equivalent honors. And, yes, you are right. This did not turn out well.

By now, especially considering the way that the two hashtags #timhunt and #distractinglysexy rocketed up the Twitter trending lists, you already know the incendiary, sexist comments that followed. They were reported across countless media platforms, including this one.

Some media organizations have stepped in to defend Hunt’s comments, which he now claims were an attempt to be entertaining. As a co-panelist sitting next to him at the luncheon, I heard a different story. His speech, he told me, was rooted in "honesty," not humor.


The conference started out on a good note. Our lectures, or so I think, were solid. I talked about the importance of history in good journalism; Hunt talked about the importance of creativity in good science. The organizers regarded these parallel talks as a clever way to balance the contributions of science and journalism.

Afterward, we were invited to a luncheon hosted by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations. Female scientists in South Korea are a definite minority; a recent study found that they represent only 17 percent of the working researchers in the country. This is slightly less than the average across Asia of 20 percent.

So they were very proud to have us there and to showcase their work. Because Hunt and I were the morning speakers, they also asked both of us to stand up during the lunch and make a few remarks.  Anyone who has done this knows that the operating principle is kindness. I talked about the ways that women make science smarter; Hunt began also by paying tribute to the capable female scientists that he knew.

Unfortunately, he decided that wasn’t enough. But “let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he said.

If you are a working woman, the word “girl” tends to be a signal flare, a red light warning of problems ahead. He continued. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry,” he said. Next he made a case that science might work better if we separated researchers into single-sex laboratories. Of course, Hunt emphasized, he didn’t want to “stand in the way” of women.

I wasn’t the only journalist attending the lunch. Others included Connie St. Louis, head of the science journalism program at City University in London; the medical writer, Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch; Curtis Brainard, blog editor of Scientific American; Rosie Mestel, chief magazine editor at Nature.

Hunt would later tell BBC4 radio that he was sorry he’d made those added comments and that “it was a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists.”

As St. Louis recounted yesterday, she, Oransky, and I sat down, and compared our notes to make sure we had an accurate account. We wanted to call out the remarks but we didn’t want to be heavy-handed about it or to be rude to our hosts. Yes, journalists really think like this. So we fretted over it; we decided to keep it simple. Connie would tweet the event; Ivan and I would retweet her. And that’s what we did.

Our idea was just to get it on the record. In the week that followed—after the story simply exploded—Hunt would resign from an honorary professorship at University College London and from the advisory board of the European Research Council, which had sponsored his trip to Seoul.

He would also tell The Guardian that he had been “hung out to dry.” He would insist that he had only been joking and that no one had asked him to explain his position. At which point, I jumped back in to counter those statements. Because, as I detailed here, I’d made a point of asking him for that very explanation,

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Some people have described all of this—the eruption across Twitter, the resulting storm of media attention—as taking on the shape of a kind of feminist witch-hunt. You’ll certainly see that in this opinion piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail.

I could not disagree more.

I do have sympathy for anyone caught in the leading edge of a media storm. But if we are ever to effect change, sometimes we need the winds to howl, to blow us out of our comfort zones.  Because the real point here isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt or me.

The real point is our failure, so far, to make science a truly inclusive profession. The real point is that that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door. The real point is that to pry that door open means change. And change is hard, uncomfortable, and necessary.

Let me quote now from a letter that the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations sent to Tim Hunt regarding his statement:

“As women scientists we were deeply shocked and saddened by these remarks, but we are comforted by the widespread angered response from international social and news media: we are not alone in seeing these comments as sexist and damaging to science. Although Dr. Hunt is a senior and highly accomplished scientist in his field who has closely collaborated with Korean scientists in the past, his comments have caused great concern and regret in Korea.”

They also noted that although Hunt belatedly called his remarks an attempt at humor, he had earlier defended them as “trying to be honest.” (That was certainly what he said to me among others.) His remarks, the letter said,  “show that old prejudices are still well embedded in science cultures. On behalf of Korean female scientists, and all Koreans, we wish to express our great disappointment that these remarks were made at the event hosted by KOFWST. This unfortunate incident must not be portrayed as a private story told as a joke”.

The federation asked for an apology. And got one almost immediately. Hunt wrote that he regretted his “stupid and ill-judged remarks.” He added: “I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologize to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us.”

In other words, this was not entirely an ill wind.

When we do make a noise, stand up for what’s right, have an open conversation about gender balance in science—even if that conversation is conducted as a virtual shouting match—we remind each other of the essential importance of equality. And we move, all of us, in a direction that matters.