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.

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