Your Sexism Doesn’t Matter If You Have A Nobel Award, And We’ll Uphold The Status Quo To Prove It

Reading about the response to Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks at a conference lunch hosted by a women in science group from the sad sticks that call themselves athiest and scientific leaders, is enlightening in a few ways. One that struck me was how easy it is for them to support women when there is pretty much nothing they can do to help them, but when they have an actual opportunity to make a difference by supporting women in a tangible way, they shudder and scream “Women are the Inquisition!”.

Richard Dawkins, amongst many others, decried the reaction to Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks as harmful, hurtful, the Inquisition. Any response to the “joke” that wasn’t full-throated support of Hunt was only meant to completely destroy the man and his career and those offended were just mean, cruel, and heartless.

He believes that no one should have spoken up. No one should have said a word. No one should have dared attack an old, white, Nobel-winning scientist because old, white Nobel-winning scientists are above reproach.

Frankly, the defenders of Hunt could have said “I support women in science and the stereotypical description Hunt expressed is one of the obstacles women in scientific fields needlessly face. It’s harmful and untrue and we can do better.”

But no. It’s so much easier to whine about Hunt’s unfair treatment because they don’t actually have to do anything. Just like when Dawkins supports women’s rights in Muslim countries. He gets to tell the world that it’s a travesty how women are treated in these far-off places but he doesn’t have to come up with any action plan, get physically involved, or put his life in the line, when doing so. It’s a safe sentiment. It’s an easy sentiment. Who would disagree that forced marriage and slaying women for religious faults a bad thing? And…done. Now it’s someone else’s problem.

That seems to be why so many other academics are getting behind Hunt and doing their best to trash his retractors–because it’s simpler to do and doesn’t really require much work on their part (they have the Sun and the Daily Mail to do that). Status quo kept. Comfort kept. All you have to do is shout very loud that a woman may have exaggerated her CV and she suddenly becomes untrustworthy for the rest of her life, then give undying support to a man who can lie through his teeth about how what he said was really, really a joke, and you’ve pretty much helped keep everything the way it’s always been–man hates on women and gets applauded for it. BTW, there were 3 people who first complained; Connie St Louis agreed to tweet the sexist comments and Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky retweeted it. What are those fine, upstanding Hunt-supporting scientists going to tar Blum and Oransky with? Should be interesting to see.

What all of this leads to is not only the silencing of women and the men who support their cause, but the acceptance of the degradation of women scientists. If the upper crust doesn’t get nailed for their horrendous behavior, others will take that to heart and follow suit–or continue on as the always have. It emphasizes that well known, important scientists can get away with treating women like shit and be hailed a hero for it.

Let me tell you a little story (maybe 2) about the effects of “important scientists can do no wrong”. The first concerns a scientist who is well established in my husband’s field. A couple of years ago he gave a presentation where he claimed at least 3 other people’s work as his own, and did not recognize their work or their names at any point. 2 women, 1 man. The man had previously contacted this scientist to see if he wished to be a co-author; the scientist declined. Then, shockingly, the scientist used those discussions about the research to claim the ideas as his own. The man worked all night to get his paper up on a pre-print server so his research could not be completely stolen. The women?  They asked for advice from senior researchers and were told to offer the scientist co-authorship on their papers–because you can’t prove he stole the ideas. Accuse him of it and it’s your reputation that is ruined, not his.

Must be nice, being a respected, important researcher that can steal others’ work and still get credit for it.

The second story stars a woman just a few months from defending her thesis. She went to a talk by a man whose research she had extended in her own. He knew her advisor, but her advisor, a prestigious Fields medalist, refused to introduce them. Speaker gave his talk to an audience of 3 (2 men and her), and the men vacated as soon as the talk was over–no time was given for questions or conversation. As she exited the room, she heard them say that if she hadn’t have been there,  they all could have gone to a bar and discussed research instead of sitting through a talk.

That was the last straw–the final slight. She went into business instead of academia because the sexism was just too thick and she felt like she was fighting the fight alone. In some ways she was right. Same department only accepted one female grad student out of 15 the previous fall. Can’t blame her for feeling a little alone–and believing her department had little respect for women in general.

Well, at least her response wasn’t “disproportionate“, was it, Brian Cox? In fact, she told no one in her department about the incident because she knew where it would lead–yes that’s right, she was afraid the powers that be might interfere with her getting her PhD. Mathematics lost a great mind but at least she didn’t try to ruin a Fields Medalist’s reputation. As Hunt supporters know, THAT would have been the real tragedy.

Seems like Hunt and his defenders have a lot of company out in academia. When men like him get away with insulting women, it tells all other Important Person Scientists that their sexism is A-OK, that it is shared and condoned and treasured. The more people who jump on that bandwagon, the more women who are going to be told their hardships don’t matter. Their work, their careers, don’t matter. They don’t matter. Academia is for men. Screw them.