With great power comes great responsibility.
Whilst we mostly associate these words with Spider-Man, the notion that power is necessarily bound to responsibility goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and it is no less true today.
A less well-known quote, spoken by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, is also true:
No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.
Taken together, these quotes tell us that if you are in a position of influence, you have a responsibility to choose your words carefully, because words themselves have great power.
And this is why I’m so fundamentally disappointed by those in British academia who are coming to Sir Tim Hunt’s defence without considering either the responsibilities inherent in their positions of influence, or how his and their words can damage others.
Much has been written about Sir Tim’s comments about women in Korea, and if you’re unfamiliar with the story then Google is your friend at this point. There is a lot of debate about whether Sir Tim’s comments were meant as a joke, and thus whether they carry as much weight as if they were made seriously.
But the “just a joke” excuse is problematic in and of itself: When we tell people that they shouldn’t be offended by offensive words, we’re both normalising the offensive opinions contained in the “joke”, and belittling the people harmed by the promulgation of those opinions.
For the record, I don’t believe that this was either a joke or a mistake. According to those who were there, such as Deborah Blum or Connie St Louis, his was not some off-the-cuff comment. St Louis tells us (2:21:29, available until around 8 July) that he was told “not to go down this ‘Ha, ha’ route” before he made his comments, and that he talked for “five to seven minutes”, rather than just making a single aside. Blum tells us that she and others challenged him the next day. And this was, as far as I can tell, before his ill-advised comments to the Today programme.
However, whether or not Sir Tim was joking is ultimately irrelevant. He should never have spoken those words in the first place. As a Nobel Laureate, a professor and a Knight of the British Empire, Sir Tim definitely has power, influence and authority. He therefore has a responsibility to think very carefully about the words he uses in his public and professional lives.
People in Sir Tim’s position have an obligation to use their power to help, support and inspire others, not to denigrate a group of people — in this case, women — who are already at a disadvantage. Sir Tim failed in that obligation. He did not take his responsibilities seriously. Instead, he abused his position of power and has either refused to or been incapable of understanding the impact his words have had, or how he is supporting the institutional sexism rife in academia, and particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths).
Even when his failure was pointed out to him, instead of reflecting on what he’d said, he doubled down and, as far as I am aware, is yet to produce a full and proper apology.
And worse, we’ve now seen a raft of people, men and women alike, in positions of significant influence and power in academia and public life have come out to defend Sir Tim and in the process belittle the concerns that women, and many men, have about sexism in science.
Ottoline Leyser and Dame Athene Donald, both senior figures at Cambridge University, supported Sir Tim in The Times, in a paywalled article that cannot be widely read.
UPDATE 22 June: The letter below is actually from Lord Winston, not Leyser & Dame Athene, so apologies for the misattribution.
Their Lord Winston’s letter begins (my bold):
Sir, Whether or not University College London pressurised Sir Tim Hunt to resign after his remarks about women in laboratories, it acted utterly wrongly. A quiet phone call followed by a gentle face-to-face conversation with the Provost should have decided a joint statement on this trivial matter.
Apart from being a brilliant scientist with a Nobel Prize for his outstanding work, Professor Hunt is a gentle, unassuming and warm individual. Indeed, he is a scientific role model not only because of his lack of arrogance but also for his concern to support more women in science.
I find it frustrating that
they Lord Winston would decide to characterise Sir Tim’s comments as a “trivial matter”. Discrimination is never a trivial matter, nor are public comments disparaging women. It is especially disappointing that Donald, who has a reputation as someone very supportive of women in STEM, should decide that sexism is trivial when it is one of her friends who is criticised.
Fear and anger are natural responses that we all feel when challenged both individually and institutionally.
They have an important role to play in bringing issues to the fore, but they get in the way of finding solutions to complex problems.
It’s time for all of us to stop cowering and shouting, buck-passing and fingerpointing and start listening and talking.
This command to ‘move on’ is just as disappointing, bringing with it as it does the implication that somehow our concerns are no longer valid, now that so many people have weighed in on the issue. That is simply not true. Problems do not just go away because lots of people have opinions, and telling people to move on is condescending and inappropriate for anyone with the influence and power these women wield.
Then another eight senior figures, Nobel Laureates all, chipped in with their opinions. Unsurprisingly, they too wrote in The Times, behind a paywall, and they too come out on Sir Tim’s side. Again, The Telegraph gives us hints as to the contents of the letter.
(If anyone has a link to these letters which is available without a subscription, please leave a comment.)
Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester, wrote:
The saddest part is probably the reaction by the UCL top brass who forced Tim to resign. So much for the freedom of expression by the very people who should be guardians of academic freedom.
Sir Andre completely misses the mark here, because this is not about academic freedom at all. Sir Tim did not release research about the relative successes of male-only labs vs female-only labs, so this is not about preventing him from publishing a paper that makes us feel uncomfortable. This is about a personal opinion, which many have found derogatory, expressed in a professional context where such opinions are very likely to be robustly challenged. Sir Andre forgets that freedom of expression is not freedom from the consequences of expression, and the science elite should be held responsible for their mistakes the same as everyone else.
And then there are the comments of Boris Johnson, Professor Brian Cox and Professor Richard Dawkins, also in support of Sir Tim, and also failing to adequately address the serious issue of sexism in science.
What really disturbs me about this is that the British academic (and political) elite appear to be closing ranks around a man who has made sexist comments and who is refusing to deal with the repercussions of those comments. Sir Tim’s words are indefensible. Describing oneself, apparently quite comfortably, as chauvinist, making demeaning comments about women, and then refusing to properly apologise for those remarks is not a slip of the tongue and it is not acceptable. It is not something that senior scientists should be supporting.
The message this sends to women is that British academe is still sexist, still does not know how to recognise sexist behaviour, has no desire to tackle sexism, and, indeed, will even support men who make sexist comments.
The message this sends is that it’s still too risky for women to call out sexist behaviour, because even other women will not censure sexism.
This is incredibly damaging, and the damage only gets worse as more and more academics decide to support Sir Tim, instead of recognising the seriousness of his error and encouraging him to make a full and sincere apology. Maybe if that happened, maybe if we saw clear signals that sexism will not be tolerated, we might be able do that moving on that Donald and Leyser are so keen on.
If academia needs an example to follow, they should take a serious look at how the Australian Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison dealt with much more serious accusations of sexism made in 2013.
Lieutenant General Morrison does not mince his words:
Those who think that it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this Army.
On all operations, female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us maintaining our capability, now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out. You may find another employer where your attitude and behaviour is acceptable, but I doubt it.
The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us, but especially those who, by their rank, have a leadership role.
If Lieutenant General Morrison can be so very clear, to very emphatic when dealing with a much, much worse situation, why can academia’s leaders not be so clear that sexism of any degree is unacceptable, in any situation, from any member of faculty in any position?
Is there not one senior academic, one Nobel Laureate, who will stand up and in unflinching language decry sexism and the support of sexism that we are currently seeing from so many leading figures? This isn’t about Sir Tim anymore. This is about an inability amongst senior scientists to understand and take seriously the responsibilities that their power has bestowed upon them.
UPDATE 22 June: Here’s a fantastic post by Hilda Bastian about the problems with the “it’s just a joke” defence, complete with references. Well worth a read.
Sexist and other discriminatory disparaging humor takes a code for granted: its funniness relies on people recognizing the stereotypes that are the basis for the joke. It asks us to not take discriminatory stereotyping seriously. That’s not going to take the sting out of it.
Ford and Ferguson concluded that jokes don’t create hostility to the outgroup where it doesn’t already exist. But the evidence, they said, showed that joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior. The joke tellers don’t themselves have to be actively misogynist to end up encouraging others to be.
And according to the Daily Mail (sorry!), two Nobel scientists have come out against Sir Tim’s comments, so that’s something to applaud:
However, 2014 shared Nobel prize winners for medicine, husband and wife Edvald and May-Britt Moser, from Norway, said Sir Tim’s speech was in no way beneficial to women.
‘Hunt’s statements point to attitudes that contribute to the continuation of inequality between the genders in science,’ they were reported as saying.
It’s a shame, though, that their comments were buried at the bottom of the article and haven’t been as widely discussed as those defending Sir Tim’s words.
Finally, @JennyRohn tweeted this, which made me sad, but underlines why we need to keep talking about sexism and calling out sexist comments and behaviour:
A woman scientist I know just said, “I’m afraid to tweet this”: http://t.co/KiLvyhlWZN by @suw – I think that speaks for itself
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