In April 2014, The Lab Times published an interview with Sir Tim Hunt, 2001 Nobel Laureate. In that interview, Tim was asked: “In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?” His reply was as follows:
“I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.”
In the recent trial-by-media that led to his instant dismissal from positions in UCL, The Royal Society, the ERC and others, the above statement was pinned to the wall as further evidence of Tim’s unsuitability as an ambassador for the Scientific Community. He was condemned for being sexist and misogynistic. Condemned by the scientific community, for asking questions and asking for evidence.
Are women really being harangued and bullied out of science by chauvinistic men? Every women ex-scientist I know left because they didn’t like the long hours, the poor salaries, and the insecurity of the funding cycle.
Is it a problem for science that more men than women remain in the field until retirement? Who can say. Do men and women do science differently?
Is it a problem for women? I don’t know. It’s not a problem for most of the women who leave science, for sure, because they’re glad to leave behind the long hours, the poor salaries and the insecurity. Many of them switch to careers in scientific publishing where women outnumber men by a factor of 4:1 – are those women disadvantaged somehow? It’s not a problem for the majority of women who leave science, so why is it a problem for the women who remain in science?
Is it a problem for women that they are outnumbered in the garbage collection industry by a factor of 100:1? Apparently not. So why is it a problem in science?
Struggling to achieve 50:50 representation of the genders seems futile and silly*. The very best we can do is strive to ensure equal opportunities and encouragement for all, and strive to ensure that all people, irrespective of gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability etc. are all treated fairly in the workplace. Workplace bullying is a real and universal problem that must be addressed, but it is not a gender issue. Almost 80% of all workplace bullying is same-gender bullying. Men bully more, but they mostly bully other men; women almost exclusively bully other women. Bullying is a form of cruelty that exists in almost every workplace and accounts for many people quitting their jobs – some of them women, and some of them scientists, but it is not indicative of endemic sexism in science.
There are occupations where women’s representation is less than 20% and nobody perceives a problem; there are occupations where women’s representation is greater than 80% and nobody perceives a problem. Whatever the reason for these apparent inequalities of representation, it seems that in these occupations a natural balance exists that reflects differences in occupational interests between the genders. If the natural balance in those occupations is accepted by everyone, I have to wonder why some people are so absolutely certain that in science the balance must be exactly 50%. Not 40%, not 60%, but exactly 50% and nothing else is tolerable. In biology, in physics, in chemistry – in ALL of science.
I heard a radio program a while ago in which two women were interviewed about women in engineering. One of the women, an engineer herself, complained bitterly that there were not enough women in engineering, and that the industry NEEDED more female graduates. The other woman, the admissions tutor for the engineering faculty at a large university, explained that simply not enough women applied for the available places. Women just don’t seem as interested in engineering as men. “Well.. then we must go into schools and MAKE them more interested!!”, was the engineer’s impassioned reply. “We must make women more like ME!” was how I interpreted it.
There are differences, generally speaking, between the interests of men and women. Maybe those differences exist for cultural reasons; maybe for biological reasons, but they exist. How can it be sexist to merely ask if those differences might contribute to the inequality of representation of the genders in any occupation, including science. I am sure that the real reasons are many, varied and complex – worthy of academic study, rather than closed-minded, feminist table-bashing.
Tim Hunt’s reply to the Lab Times interview question above seems perfectly rational, academic and scientific to me – he asked for evidence of a problem. Why do women seem less interested in staying in science than men? And why is it a problem? And for whom is it a problem? These are questions for a sociologist to answer, rather than a cell biologist. Sadly however, it seems that we now live in a time when those questions are forbidden. The answers are not important or relevant to the feminist cause.
Feminism has served its purpose now, and should be replaced by equalism. Equality of opportunity for all and fairness in the workplace should be our goals; not equality of gender representation.
(* I hasten to add that I am very proud to work in a biology research institute where the ratio of female:male staff is almost exactly 50:50. But to suggest that this might be the result of positive discrimination or any other ‘enlightened policy’ seems utterly demeaning to those women.)