Nobel Prize Winner Calls Lady Scientists Crybabies

The biologist who called female scientists “girls” who fell in love with him then berated them for crying too much isn’t an outlier. For females in the science world, sexism is the norm.

Csabsa SegevariAFP/Getty

Lady scientists: they’re always falling in love and crying about it. Amiright?

So says important man of science, knighted and Nobel Prize-winning biologist Sir Tim Hunt, at a luncheon for science journalists hosted by Korean women scientists.

In remarks yesterday before writers, scientists, and engineers attending the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, Hunt stood and after warning attendees that he had a reputation as a male chauvinist, offered up his groundbreaking ideas on women in the field.

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Hunt said, according to science journalist Connie St Louis, who tweeted the most disgusting points in his unrecorded speech. “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 continued that while he was in favor of single-sex laboratories, he didn’t want to “stand in the way” of women.

Maybe lady scientists just can’t take a joke? Not so, tweeted prominent science writer Deborah Blum, who wrote that Hunt doubled down when she asked him about his comments. “I was hoping he’d say it had been a joke. But he just elaborated. Sigh.” Blum tweeted. “He did tell me that he thought I might hold up okay because I didn’t seem the crying kind.”

It’s a bit of a slap in the face coming from such an esteemed scientist, not to mention father of two daughters and husband of Mary Collins, an accomplished female professor at University College London who has managed to run a major department as well as a lab investigating gene therapy approaches for cancer and infectious diseases. At the same time, thinking like Hunt’s seems almost unavoidable in science.

Just last week, Alice S. Huang, a senior faculty associate in biology at California Institute of Technology and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote in an advice column for Science that a female postdoc scientist should “put up with” her adviser’s constant quest to peer down her shirt while working in the lab, “with good humor if you can.”

Then we learned of Fiona Ingleby, the female evolutionary genetics researcher from the University of Sussex who, after submitting her work to a journal for consideration, was smacked with a peer review that boiled down to: “get a man.” The reviewer suggested having someone with a Y chromosome sign on as an author would protect her work from bias, the implication being that men are able to be objective—the most prized quality for scientists—while women are not.

These examples are not outliers. They are the norm and exist within a field dominated by men of which the overwhelming body of evidence suggests has a bias against the women who dare enter the profession.

An email to Hunt requesting comment was not returned, but the Nobel laureate has spoken before concerning his attitudes toward women in science. In an interview last year with Lab Times, Hunt was asked why women were still under-represented in senior positions in academia. His answer was revealing.

“I'm not sure there is really a problem, actually,” he said. “People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me... is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don't know, it clearly upsets people a lot.”

Update: An earlier version of this article quoted Hunt as thanking the women journalists “for making lunch." Those remarks have been removed due to a possible error in translation.