During a conference in South Korea, Tim Hunt – Nobel Prize Winner, aged 72 made a few sexist comments that set the science community on fire, male and female alike.
Biochemist Tim Hunt won the Nobel prize in 2001 for having discovered the protein molecules which are responsible for controlling cell division. His off the cuff comments uttered in the presence of international guests at the South Korea-based conference ignited a new debate on gender bias in the scientific community.
Seemingly lighthearted, his comments said that women in the laboratories are distracting due to their appearance and if a romantic relationship occurs, constructive criticism cannot be handled by women scientist without crying.
The rather funny and misplaced comments sparked an equally reaction that took Twitter by storm. As a result, Tim Hunt resigned his unpaid position as honorary professor at University College London Faculty of Sciences.
Sexism and gender bias in the workplace is not a phenomenon thriving in just one sector. The scientific community suffers of the same ailment, a fact proved by a high number of reports coming from leading institutions.
To this extent, the response to Mr. Hunt’s comments was a visibly condemning one, albeit the approach that proved quite funny.
A few samples of Twitter messages posted under the #distractinglysexy will show exactly what we mean. LANL software engineer Heather Nordquist tweeted:
“It’s hard not to be #distractinglysexy while in your anti-c’s atop a sodium cooled fast breeder reactor.”
Another tweet coming from Sarah Durant, a wildlife biologist confessed:
“Nothing like a sample tube full of cheetah poop to make you #distractinglysexy.”
How about Sonja Vernes’s tweet, coming from the Max Planck Institute:
“I made it through these brain dissections without falling in love or crying. Phew!”
International Space Station’s team made it to the tweets as well. Brian Williams posted:
“Gorgeous parting shot of Soyuz from the ISS today. Rumor has it there was a #distractinglysexy astronaut on board”.
An enormous number of tweets stemmed from the controversy, with women scientists posting photos of themselves in laboratory attire or while performing common fieldwork activities according to their field of expertise.
Alongside the witty comebacks posted on Twitter, stronger critics argued that such a declaration coming from a leader in the scientific community is detrimental and denigrating not only to those directly targeted, but to the community as well. Like in any other field, the scientific community is working together for a common goal.
Reinforcing the gap that already exists in gender bias does no favor to science. Snarky comments such as those made by Tim Hunt certainly don’t aid the cause of women scientists who have a hard time entering the ranks under any circumstance.
Stereotyping and myth propagating are practices that should be brought to an end. Of course, the result of the comeback #distractinglysexy campaign showed that Tim Hunt represents a minority that keep the practice going.
Yet, the common perception that women are highly emotional and thus not fit for scientific careers continues to thrive, albeit within a decreasing segment.
According to UNESCO records, university courses related to scientific fields show enrolment numbers which are higher for women than for men, with 55 percent to 45 percent. After university, only 47 percent of women in these courses go on for a doctoral cycle, and the number that is retained in the research positions falls to 38 percent.
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