Sunday, June 21, 2015

The real #TimHunt witch hunt

'Unbelievably stupid', 'unacceptable, indefensible', 'inappropriate and stupid'. Just some of the criticism levelled at Tim Hunt after his "problem with girls" remarks earlier this month. Yet these remarks were all from those claiming the world – and social media in particular – had overreacted: Athene Donald, various Nobel laureates contacted by The Times, and Hunt's wife.

How much worse then must the social media reaction have been to bring forth comparisons to a 'witch hunt', a 'lynch mob' and 'ISIS in another guise'? Athene Donald, in her blog on the subject, tells us repeatedly to 'look at the evidence', so what does the evidence show?

The Daily Telegraph gives examples such as 'Maybe if less male scientists were such chauvanist [sic] pigs there would be more women in science and technology Tim Hunt?', 'Tim Hunt's comments are so ridiculously horrid they almost qualify as satire. Sadly they are only reflection of sexist reality in #science', 'Well done sexist Tim Hunt for overcoming crying, lovestruck women to win a Nobel. Sadly my career was blighted at an earlier stage.', 'Tim Hunt antiquated comments regarding women. People like him who hold back the process of making workplaces more equal', and 'What an idiot and how damaging for women in science. Glad he had the sense to issue an apology at least.'. The Telegraph also noted that 'Nobel prize winning scientist has resigned after saying women scientists 'cry' and 'fall in love' in laboratories. Now, they're sharing photos on social media, mocking his comments', in the article #DistractinglySexy: Female scientists mock Sir Tim Hunt on Twitter.

So the evidence from the Telegraph for what they term an 'online backlash' is comments that are certainly not significantly worse than those from his supporters, along with women having the temerity to mock the words of a knight of the realm.

It's worth looking at the first responses to these tweets to see how people who spoke out were received: 'Whiner. You're a perfect example as to why women shouldn't be doing anything important.', 'Well, women are the smarter sex so they should have their own working spaces. You go girls!', 'just another man whose professional achievements do not match his humanity', 'I say let the women have their own working spaces so they can show the world they are smarter!'. The last tweet quoted can no longer be found on Twitter, but three of the other four were met with an immediate sexist response. Glancing down the threads it is also clear that more sexist replies came in later, and by searching it is easy to find that the deleted tweet also garnered numerous sexist responses.

What about the Guardian? It says 'He was described on Twitter as “a clueless, sexist jerk”; “a misogynist dude scientist”; while one tweet demanded that the Royal Society “kick him out”.' Again, the responses are instructive: only one had an immediate sexist response, but it was the only one from a woman: 'just keep your head up your ass and exit the building. Thanks.'

There has been plenty of abuse online around #TimHunt – aimed at women who spoke out. But nowhere in the press coverage do we see this reflected. The stories are about how Tim Hunt was hounded out of office by 'Feminist Bullies' (Daily Mail, who I refuse to link to), and how hard done by he is. Despite UCL's clear statement that 'Media and online commentary played no part in UCL's decision to accept his resignation.', we still have the Times claiming his fall was caused by a Twitter 'lynch mob' and Richard Dawkins blaming a 'witch hunt' by 'academic thought police'.

There is a witch hunt out there, but it's not against Tim Hunt. It's against those women brave enough to speak out publicly against sexism.

Friday, June 12, 2015

UCL's problematic #TimHunt press release

Following the sexist comments made by Nobel prize winner Sir Tim Hunt, UCL sent out a press release stating that he had resigned from his position as an Honorary Professor. If they had left it there it would have been great, but they didn’t.
A second paragraph* went on to say “UCL was the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men”. This was, of course, picked up by many media sites, including the BBC and the Guardian, and was included in their stories. A nice bit of free advertising for the university there, on the back of a scandal caused by someone they’d previously been keen to count among their Nobel Laureates! Maybe not the best time to be boasting about their history. But the problems don’t stop there.
UCL’s statement references its admission of women in 1878. There is a strong implication that it was the first institution in England to do so, but this ignores the contribution of the earlier women’s colleges: Bedford (1849) in London, Girton (1869) and Newnham (1871) in Cambridge, and the London School of Medicine for Women (1874) all pre-date UCL’s admission of women. UCL would, it appears, like to airbrush out Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett, Emily Davies, and Elizabeth Jesser Reid.
It could be argued that UCL’s statement is technically correct in that the other colleges were women-only, making it the first to admit women on equal terms to men. But did UCL truly admit women on equal terms to men in 1878? According to Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick’s 1897 essay The Place of University Education in the Life of Women “Women [at University College] are admitted to the faculties of Arts, Science and Laws, but excluded from engineering and medicine with the exception of hygiene and public health.” Medicine, let it not be forgotten, was the discipline in which Hunt won his Nobel prize. It wasn’t until 1917, under the pressure of World War I, that UCL allowed women into medicine, later than many provincial English universities and other London colleges.
A final problem is the way that this has been inserted into the Hunt story. It’s not just the free advertising, it’s not just the historically dubious claims, it’s the echoes of #NotAllMen, the implication that UCL has a spotless history of trailblazing women’s rights on which Hunt is the only blemish. By perpetuating the idea that Hunt was a bad apple rather than part of a systemic problem, UCL do a disservice to the gender equality they claim to champion.

*Note: this second paragraph was the final paragraph of the press release when I wrote this blog. Others have since been added.