Nobel Laureate’s Controversial Remarks Underscore the need for more Women in STEM

Source: University of Basel

Photo from University of Basel

Late last week, Tim Hunt, a Nobel Laureate scientist, made international headlines after his sexist remarks regarding the “problem” with “girl” scientists went viral. He resigned from his post as honorary professor at the University College London late last week, the Guardian reported.

Scientist and writer Connie St. Louis first broke the news of Hunt’s misogynistic comments while listening to him speak at the World Conference of Science Journalism, which, according to the tweet by St. Louis, was sponsored by “powerful role model Korean female scientist and engineers” in South Korea.

Hunt’s commentary on his perceived pratfalls of having female scientists work in the same labs as their male counterparts, which he bizarrely gives at an event sponsored by female scientists, went as follows:

“Let me tell you the trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab; you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.” The 72-year-old’s then went on to extol his endorsement of single-sex laboratories.

The online furor was instant, intense, and given the current state of women in science–and women’s equality broadly–understandable.

In the UK, where Hunt was born and raised, women consistently outperform men in school, yet remain underrepresented in the fields of science, math, engineering, and manufacturing (STEM). WISE, an organization that works to inspire young women to enter STEM(science, technology, engineering, and math) occupations, reports that those industries are comprised of just 13 percent women.

The percentage of women in STEM drops to below 10 when the medical industry–which encompasses the traditionally feminine occupation of nursing–is excluded.

The BBC reported that female students are less confident than male students in science and math classes, which could account for the deficit of women in STEM. A deeply ingrained cultural dichotomy exists which socializes women in the domains of arts and literature, and men in the domains of math and science. As a result, men are continually over represented in STEM, while the women who do manage to enter the field are subject to the sort of sexual stereotyping and tokenism that informed Hunt’s remarks in the first place.

In an article published in Scientific American one week after her tweet catapulted the issue to the global stage, St. Louis called on the Royal Society–an organization of internationally renowned scientists that was founded in the 1660s–to take actionable steps to equalize the currently male-dominated fields for which they are a main organizing body.

“Sexual inequality in the STEM fields continues in part because the Society continues to take very little action,” wrote St. Louis, who scorned the Royal Society which boasts an abysmal 5 percent female membership.

Reactions to Hunt’s resignation have not been all positive, however.

Hunt’s announcement amid the firestorm of understandably angry tweets has led some to conclude that online shaming is at least partly responsible for his abdication.

“Hunt’s comments about women working in research have been interpreted as proving he is a deep-rooted misogynist whose subsequent downfall is no more than he deserved,” said Athene Donald, a female professor of physics at the University of Cambridge who has sat with Hunt on “several committees”,in Time Magazine.

Donald said Hunt was a champion for women in science, and endorsed many female candidates for various appointments and promotions.

She said, “The media storm has simply analyzed the remarks at face value and not looked at the totality of his lifetime contributions and the evidence of how he has treated women over five decades of research activity.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: AMANDA BURKE

Currently a journalism student at Boston University, formerly a line cook with a side gig selling vintage jewelry. I am interested in the way our narrative species communicates and consumes information and images, and the power of storytelling to connect us all. I am passionate about social politics and policy, and hope one day work for an organization that shares my dedication for feminism, culture, and the arts.

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