With great power comes great responsibility

by Suw on June 22, 2015

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.

Sir Tim Times letter

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.

The Telegraph reports Leyser & Dame Athene as saying:

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

Please note that comments are moderated, and I will not be publishing any comments that are abusive. 

rpg June 23, 2015 at 7:48 am

All that you said. And then some.

I had a bit of a rant, inspired by this post. http://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2015/jun/23/academic-freedom-sexism-and-other-trivial-matters

Suw June 23, 2015 at 8:41 am

Thank you for posting the link to your awesome rant! It’s a great piece, and I’m very glad that you’ve written it.

I think there is further discussion to be had about the visibility of the more positive anti-sexism responses to this, eg from David Colquhoun, and Nobel laureates Edvald and May-Britt. When I wrote this piece over the weekend, I was really struggling to find good, solid articles in the mainstream media that presented the case for combatting sexism, and for why we cannot tolerate even supposed jokes that denigrate women (or any other group). Although there have been comments left, eg on Athene Donald’s deeply flawed post or on people’s personal blogs, little has made it through the media filter to reach a wider audience. Of course, so many articles have been written that it’s impossible to read them all, so it’s very possible that I’m missing something important. However, I like to think that, as I’ve been keeping my eye out for exactly that over the last two weeks, anything taking that line would have revealed itself to me via the magic of Twitter.

Why is this? I can’t believe that every senior academic believe’s sexism is just fine and dandy. Yet all the letters to the Times in the photo above are pro-Hunt and in some cases, really very sexist in and of themselves. Our concerns are “trivial”, Sir Tim’s comments were “anodyne”. Not one letter supporting UCL, or any of the women who complained is included. When we look at the articles published by academics, again, the ones I’ve seen, the most high-profile ones, are all in Hunt’s defence.

Perhaps those senior figures in academia who feel dismayed at the way this public debate has swung should put together a joint letter and see how many really senior people, men and women, then can get to undersign it. Maybe that would get a bit of media attention, and send that message that sexism should not and must not be tolerated. At the moment, I still believe that we have not yet seen a strong enough response, even though there are some individuals who have, commendably, made a stand. I hope that will change over coming days.

Jenny Rohn June 23, 2015 at 9:00 am

Why is it?

Another hypothesis is that the press are milking the backlash narrative and presenting mainly the viewpoints that fuel that narrative. The anti-Hunt views don’t support a sexy story. Far better the doomed martyr scenario than the more nuanced reality, as far as racking up ad revs and clicks. Press bias would also explain why many of the stories deliberately failed to explain about the symbolic nature of the UCL position, or used verbs like ‘sacked’ and ‘hounded out’ instead of ‘resigned’. A lot of us are still being pressured by journalists to take polarized stands that we don’t actually subscribe to. This is partly why I suspect that the parties involved in the narrative wanted to wrest back control of the debate via social media – which, quite predictably, the mainstream press then needed to slam and dismiss as the ‘witch-hunting feminazi hordes’, because this freer dialogue undermined their pet narrative.

Suw June 23, 2015 at 9:24 am

Jenny, yes, I think that the media has favoured a certain narrative, but they like nothing more than a bit of conflict, so I don’t think that completely explains the lack of anti-sexism voices. For example, if a group of Nobel laureates and senior academics co-signed a letter supporting calls to address sexism in academia, I think that that would get media attention.

Schrodinger's Kit June 24, 2015 at 9:07 am

I’m not quite sure what the Times is pushing here. A few days afterwards they published this interview with my friend, which instead of the proposed coverage of her upcoming talk at a festival of education about routes into STEM, discussed her outfit choices. http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache%3ABq7Yk6YCr_EJ%3Awww.thesundaytimes.co.uk%2Fsto%2Fnews%2Fuk_news%2Farticle1568544.ece&hl=en&strip=1 Her response here: http://standardissuemagazine.com/voices/distractinglysexy/

I’m also not sure why people are making public statements behind paywalls to which a tiny amount of people have access (around 150,000 people).

Suw June 24, 2015 at 9:27 am

I saw what happened to Suze, and it was horrendous. I suspect, though, that the Time is staffed by unreconstructed sexists and this is just how they see the world. Like the majority of people engaging in the comments on the various articles. And of course, those making not-so-public statements in favour of sexism in science, because that’s what they are, will do so to a sympathetic audience and the Times certainly qualifies there.

Matthew Cockerill June 24, 2015 at 12:25 pm

I’m one of the 28 signatories (male and female former students, postdoctoral fellows and staff scientists) of yesterdays letter in The Times calling for Tim Hunt’s reinstatement. (btw I agree it is a shame that aspects of this debate are happening behind a paywall – I was hoping letter would be open access). http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/letters/article4477112.ece

There is a humourlessness in some of the criticism which is a bit depressing. MP Emily Thornberry wasn’t hounded from office when she accused Boris Johnson of “ridiculous willy-waving”, and nor should she have been – she was choosing to make her serious point more vivid, in a humorous and deliberately somewhat offensive way. Good for her. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/boris-johnson-accused-of-ridiculous-willywaving-for-refusing-to-meet-rmt-leader-bob-crow-as-second-tube-strike-looms-9118809.html

Yet Tim Hunt’s simple phrase “the trouble with girls” seems to be being treated by some as sufficient in itself to indicate a profoundly sexist attitude that warrants sacking, irrespective of all the practical evidence from Tim’s long career to the contrary.

Re: the lengthy ‘was it or wasn’t it a joke’ debate. As with willy-waving, surely the answer is “yes and no”. It is hardly unprecedented for a speaker to seek to make a serious point in a jocular way!

Surely we can fight institutional sexism without insisting that henceforth the relationship between the sexes (rich and complex as it is) shall be spoken of only in the most serious, solemn and guarded tones…

Suw June 24, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Matthew, time and again I’ve heard from women who were in the room that Hunts comments were not a joke. This whole furore is not about lacking a sense of humour.

Hunt was asked prior to his turn to speak not to make the sexist comments that he wanted to make. He was warned that it wasn’t a good idea. He made those comments anyway. He was asked the next day to clarify, and he stood by his comments. He then had an opportunity on one of the UK’s largest and most influential radio programmes to step back and rethink his position, and he didn’t. And it wasn’t an of the cuff comment. According to Connie St Louis who was there, it was a sustained 5 to 7 minute talk.

The thing is, making sexist comments, whether or not intended humorously (pleases see relevant update in blog post above about why humour is not a defence) is entirely inappropriate in any professional or public setting. Making sexist comments is incompatible with an honorary role in which one is acting as a figurehead and role model. Making sexist comments is incompatible with fighting sexism in science. It’s not about lacking humour at all – that’s a total red herring and, in fact, a tactic used to further demean women and minorities. The issue is that as a public speaker in a professional context, you should not denigrate anyone in your audience, let alone half the world’s population.

The women who were there have said that they were offended by his words. The South Korean hosts of the World Conference of Science Journalists have released a statement expressing their dismay and disappointment. Attempts to sweep that under the carpet by saying “it was a joke” are insulting and misguided.

Matthew Cockerill June 24, 2015 at 5:37 pm

“Attempts to sweep that under the carpet by saying “it was a joke” are insulting and misguided.”

That just repeats the misunderstanding I was trying to address. All I am saying is that the apparent contradiction which is causing such debate (“was he joking, or did he mean it?”) is really no such thing. There’s even an expression for it… “Many a true word….”

As has been discussed extensively in recent months, in a free society there is also a right to cause offence. Otherwise the terms of debate become entirely defined by those who are most easily offended.

The jocular phrasing is a distraction – the substance of the remarks can be paraphrased as:
“In my experience, given the close working relationship between advisors and their students, there is a significant risk of the personal and professional becoming intertwined, which is not without consequences.”
“In my experience, women’s response to professional criticism tends to take a different emotional form to men’s, and this may present challenges”

Others I am sure have different experience, but are these really perspectives that should be considered “unsayable” in a free society on pain of losing your job?

Suw June 24, 2015 at 5:53 pm

There are already things that are considered unacceptable, and for which you are very, very likely to lose a position such as Hunt’s honorary title at UCL in which he is supposed to act as a role model and figurehead. Anti-semitic, homophobic, or racist comments, or threats of violence or incitement to violence, or religious hatred, these have all been deemed by society to be beyond the pale, and essentially unsaybable. If Hunt’s comments were racist, I doubt anyone would even question UCL’s decision to accept his resignation. Sexist comments should be in the same bucket. And yes, Hunt’s comments were sexist, even wrapped up in the more polite language you use.

Matthew Cockerill June 24, 2015 at 6:32 pm

Leaving aside the suggestion that such wide range of important topics should be outside the scope of rational discussion, I do find it difficult to comprehend how this statement:

“In my experience, given the close working relationship between advisors and their students, there is a significant risk of the personal and professional becoming intertwined, which is not without consequences.”

can be “sexist” when it contains no reference to gender, applies equally to relationships in either direction (female or male advisor) and whether heterosexual and homosexual, and would seem to be evidenced by copious real world examples.

Suw June 24, 2015 at 6:55 pm

What Hunt said was not a part of a rational discussion, nor did he engage with a rational discussion with those who actually asked him about his viewpoints the day after he spoke. Much of the support for him has not been rational discussion either, it’s been friends and/or colleagues seeking to support him and minimise the impact that his words had both on those who heard them and the wider debate about sexism in science. Whilst I understand that urge, it is wrong. When someone makes an error of judgement, the best thing a friend can do is help them understand why they were wrong, and help them to find the courage to apologise fully and unreservedly.

Also, saying that some types of speech have been deemed by society to be unacceptable does not mean we cannot talk about the issues they represent. You can talk about racism without being racist, for example. So I am not even beginning to say that a “wide range of important topics should be outside the scope of rational discussion”, I’m saying you cannot make sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-semitic or other such statements or jokes without repercussions.

Finally, HR policies on relationships between senior and junior members of staff absolutely need to be discussed, but that is again not what Hunt was doing. He made a series of sexist comments, and repackaging them with different words won’t make them any less sexist.

Fishnut June 24, 2015 at 8:23 pm

There seems to be a lot of talk about how no one’s allowed to offend any more. I have to say I disagree both on the premise and on the reality. No one, as far as I know, has said that Hunt should not be allowed to say what he said. There has been a lot of people saying they wish he hadn’t said what he said but that’s very different from saying he should be silenced. Additionally there has not, from any of the articles I can see, been anyone clamouring for Hunt’s registration. He volunteered his resignation and UCL accepted it. The so-called backlash has been predominantly women mocking Hunt (primarily through #distractingly sexy on Twitter) and using this as a case in point for their frustration that there is still so much entrenched and implicit sexism in STEM.

What I do find ironic about all those claiming that no-one’s allowed to offend any more is that they seem quite ok with people like Hunt saying offensive things (and yes, calling professional scientists ‘girls’ and saying essentially that they can’t keep their hormones in check IS offensive) yet those same people crying ‘free speech’ want to infringe on the right to free speech of those complaining. Why are Hunt and his comrades allowed to say what they like (often in the national press, no less) while those who want to criticise those comments are told to, effectively, shut up. Even though they have a much smaller voice and are largely speaking from personal platforms without the amplification of places like ‘The Times” and the BBC. There’s a strong whiff of hypocrisy about the whole situation.

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