After Tim Hunt: another science is possible

After the widespread reaction to Tim Hunt’s comments on women in science, it’s time to unpick the various hierarchies that stifle scientific debates and practice. 

Alice Bell
18 June 2015

Along with penguin gifs, maps, manbuns, eggs and Ruby Rose, the internet loves a bit of sexism in science.

There is something about the topic that makes for powerful sharebait. It inspires the people formally known as the audience not only to click, but make this click social – to show their engagement and encourage others to engage too. The topic increasingly pops up offline too. Once the province of the geekier end of social justice worrying, even BAE Systems and BP are playing the equality in STEM game these days (even if London’s own troll mayor is yet to get the memo).


Lego figurine Professor B in the lab. Photo: Maia Weinstock via Flickr.

That’s not to imply such public debate is mere performance. Sexism in science seems to have genuinely touched a nerve, and not just from people directly affected by it. Perhaps it is simply decades of injustice bubbling up, perhaps it is because we want to imagine scientists as good people, or perhaps we expect the construction of science to be unbiased by something as distorting as sexism. Whatever the reason – and whether the furore is sparked by a video, a shirt, some new research or a speech – people seem to want to talk about the topic, and do so in the new forms of public the internet offers.

And, when it comes to these newly public scandals of sexism in science, a pattern seems to be emerging.

Phase one: OMFG LOOK!!!!1111!!!!! Someone spots an especially shocking example of sexism and science, shares it and watches it being re-shared.

Phase two: Momentum. This one-off problem resonates with a host of others and the internet starts to work through its rage. The outrage spreads, gaining supporters, attaching itself to new ideas and older histories along the way.

Phase three: Mockery. In the recent Tim Hunt case, there was the #distractinglysexy meme, perhaps fuelled by scientists desire to challenge the white coat cliché, and non-scientists’ curiosity over whatever happens in the lab. (Or maybe postdocs just really, really love selfies). In the momentary carnival of outrage and laughter, the power dynamics seem temporarily is reversed. The oppressor looks foolish, wrong, suddenly small. 

Phase four: Backlash. This is sometimes fuelled by an appearance by someone at the centre of the scandal and/ or a woman pulled out in support of them (as if their lack of Y chromosome somehow trumps those complaining). At this point the words “twitter mob” start to emerge, along with passive aggressive calls to be "nuanced" and "thoughtful".

Yet more people join the debate and perhaps understandably position themselves as a calm "reasonable" and “balanced” position (though not always checking whether or not the scales they’re checking the balance on are rigged). There are calls to “be positive” and offer “practical advice”, not mock or complain. A new truth is constructed, one where roles gradually return to where they lay before. Those who had initially expressed outrage are now looked down upon, called unreasonable, hotheaded, bitter, even hysterical, put (back) in their place. Were invited to feel sympathy with the person they’d labeled an oppressor, possibly even told to see them as oppressed. The self-pity of privilege is paraded in front of us, a weird pastiche of genuine oppression.

This last phase is worth unpicking, not least as it's revealing in the ways sexism intersects with other hierarchies, both online and in science. 

We should question those who let sympathy for men who've briefly suffered the pain of being called sexist somehow erase sympathy for women who have, throughout their lives, dealt with sexism. Yes it hurts to be called sexist. It hurts more to suffer sexism, not least because it is, for many, an everyday tedium, not just a weirdly disorienting one-off.

We should also question why we're so quick to cry "twitter mob”, who it serves and what, exactly, this means.

 A few years ago Rob Manuel wrote a great call to stop dismissing the bottom half of the Internet, offering a class analysis of the way those with media power so happily dismiss a mass of opinions around them. "Don't read the comments" is analogous to "don't listen to the proles."

As Chris Chambers said of the recent Tim Hunt fuss: “there has been no witch hunt, no lynch mob, no burnings or beheadings. Just people, including lots of women scientists, expressing their displeasure with Tim Hunt’s comments on social media.”

All this matters because none of it is just about what Tim Hunt said or what Matt Taylor wore. It's about the larger problems in the structure of science which they reflect.


Lego female scientists. Photo: Irish Typepad via Flickr.

Science isn't just sexist – it's also deeply hierarchical. In many ways the hierarchies allow the sexism to breed – senior male staff find it easier than they should to harass junior, often precariously employed women.

But it’s a larger problem than just sexism: quelling critique and stifling the progress of science in multiple other ways. And it’s not just women who have a hard time in science. Class is a pervasive problem, all too often ignored. As is race. And disability. Then there’s the ties to the arms trade, the oil industry, and so on and so forth. Science is meant to thrive on open debate, but the truth is that contemporary science is all too often designed around avoiding any topics the top-dogs find uncomfortable.

Another science is possible, though. The "bottom half" of science might be easily dismissed, but the internet is allowing them to talk to each other in ways the rigid hierarchies of science traditionally have not. Change might not be fast, but it’s coming.  

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