Tim Hunt vs. real problems

Recently I heard a story from a colleague at Imperial College who witnessed an appalling situation in one of the university’s departments, where he had previously worked. A committee interviewed candidates for a position of a lecturer and they had three comparable candidates, one of whom was female. At some point two male members of the committee (professors) exchanged informal remarks that there’s no point hiring the female candidate because she’ll get pregnant anyway. This caused a strong reaction from another member of the committee, and so of course the two professors came up with another reason not to hire the woman candidate, having made up their minds earlier. I don’t have any reasons not to believe the person who told me this story, but in any case people who have been in science long enough have heard similar ones.

Last week there we witnessed a social media storm caused by very unwise and sexist comments made by a noble laureate, Tim Hunt. This sparked an entire debate whether the reaction was well deserved or not. I think at this point everything has been said about Tim Hunt while surprisingly little attention has been devoted to the real problems women in science face everyday.

Tim Hunt was very wrong to say what he said, especially given his role of a scientific “royalty”. But I feel that there are thousands of male scientists out there who say such things not as a joke, and which go unpunished every day. They may not be nobel laureates but they could be group leaders, professors, deans, lecturers and hold a responsible role in the scientific community. Somehow, we don’t discuss how to go about their sexist remarks in everyday life. Just listen to what women scientists have experienced.

Another thing is that University College London (UCL) acted very decisively against Tim Hunt’s remarks asking him to resign. But are universities like UCL doing everything they can to support young women scientist their decision to have a child and yet staying competitive? Most young women scientists I know are worried about having a child during the postdoctoral stage because it may negatively impact their career. Maybe it’s because postdoctoral fellowships are rarely extended if maternity leave is taken? (See here) Maybe it’s because nurseries are incredibly expensive and the waiting time for the free one is counted in years? (The last one also affects me as a future dad.) So maybe we should talk about these issues instead of what Tim Hunt meant?

I am a man, not a woman, so you may think my voice is less credible. But if I notice these problems as a man don’t you think that they are serious enough? Some of the best scientists I know are women and many of them have children. If a person can go on to spend months away with their young ones, and then come back and be a competitive scientist, don’t you think that this is the ultimate proof that women are as good scientists as men?

So let’s stop talking about Tim Hunt and start talking about the real issues.

Rafał Mostowy

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