If British scientist and Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt thought he was having “trouble with girls” before, he had no idea how bad things would get after he used the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, Korea on Monday to share his feelings about co-ed laboratory working conditions, which he does not favor.
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Hunt began the remarks that have already ended his career at the University College London and threaten his fellowship in the Royal Society.
“Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”
So it turns out that the socially awkward nerds on “The Big Bang Theory” are not overblown Hollywood exaggerations. Real life scientists have even less common sense than their fictional counterparts.
Hunt must have realized that he had stepped in it because he immediately apologized and managed to make things worse. He said that he shouldn’t have said what he said in front of so many journalists. He went on to say that he meant to be humorous but really just wanted to be honest.
So let’s break this down. Hunt’s not sorry he said it, he’s sorry he got caught. He was just kidding but he meant what he said. As apologies go, this one is as confusing as it is insincere.
Hunt made several mistakes but it’s my opinion that he was doomed from the moment he referred to his colleagues as “girls.” If he had called his colleagues “women” and thereby indicated he considered them as his equals, it is possible, though unlikely, that he could have gotten away with the rest of it.
Two of his three problems are just sexual tension in the workplace which is a real thing and has been for as long as there have been mixed sex workplaces. It’s not inherently sexist to point that out. Blaming it totally on the “girls” in his lab without taking any responsibility for his part in the workplace shenanigans is sexist, however. With respect to Hunt’s humor defense and at the risk of being as ageist as Hunt is sexist, the idea that a succession of nubile young scientists have been continually throwing themselves at this clueless 72 year old dork is an unlikely enough prospect to merit a chuckle.
Meanwhile, some of the very same female scientists whose lascivious beauty inspired Sir Tim Hunt’s downfall have come forward to tweet photographs of themselves in their full scientific regalia with the hashtag, #DistractinglySexy.
Where Sir Tim Hunt was attempting to be funny, the offended lady scientists are indeed very funny. Whoever said that feminists have no sense of humor has never met these “girls.” Sporting lab coats accessorized with rubber gloves, hair nets and face masks, their work attire could better be described as science burkas than #DistractinglySexy.
Hunt’s third point about his female coworkers tendency to cry was never going to end well for him and probably not for me, either because here I have to admit Hunt has a point. Women do cry more than men. We’re not supposed to say that anymore but it’s true.
Back during the early wave of feminism, somebody decided that the problem wasn’t that women cried too much but that men didn’t cry enough and that the solution was for men to be more open to a good squall. I am not so old not to have been subjected to a little of that indoctrination and can truthfully say that I have indeed cried a few times in my life; when my grandmother died, when my little sister killed herself, when my first grandson died at six weeks old and when my 18-month-old granddaughter was diagnosed with brain cancer being notable among them. Sometimes I can even get a little glassy eyed at a well-crafted chick flick but that really shouldn’t count since hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by film studios to manipulate my emotions.
But I have never cried in the workplace and have never before envisioned any reason that I might. What’s the worst that can happen at work? Being unceremoniously and unexpectedly fired. Been there. Done that. No tears. But I have seen female tears in the workplace and like all female tears directed at men, they are a passive aggressive power play. They are very distracting, very disconcerting and a useful tool for a powerless person facing a more powerful counterpart. I just hope that as equality for women becomes more of a reality, there will be less need for that tool to be deployed.
Many of the #DistractinglySexy scientists made very witty comments about the stereotype of female tears and lampooned old fuddy duddies like Hunt and me in the process.
But the final word on female crying in the workplace came from one of the #DistractinglySexy scientists who posted a picture of herself in her full Ebola protective gear and admitted that she had cried both when patients died of Ebola and when she herself recovered from it. Even I don’t have a problem with that and I hope Sir Tim Hunt doesn’t either.