Over the course of the past week, we all watched as Tim Hunt’s long, distinguished career went up in smoke. During a speech he gave June 9 at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea, this well-known Nobel Prize winning scientist and strong supporter of STEM education made a number of sexist comments regarding female scientists, which led to an uproar on social media platforms, including the coining of the hashtag #distractinglysexy. In less than a week, Mr. Hunt saw his position with the European Research Council science committee, his role at the Royal Society and his honorary post at University College London disappear.
While I have enjoyed viewing the many, many posts on social media showcasing the fascinating work real female scientists and engineers do, as a woman working in a STEM field myself I can’t help but wonder if the complete and utter dissolution of a 72-year-old man’s otherwise laudable career was really the best answer. There have been no charges of gender discrimination made against him, no charges of sexual harassment-only these comments which seem to have potentially been his poor attempt at making a joke. The punishment does not quite fit the crime, in my opinion.
As an engineer who has spent the majority of her career surrounded by mostly men, I have heard my fair share of sexist jokes and comments. Writing off the men who make jokes or comments such as these as ignorant does nothing to promote the cause of gender equality in STEM fields. Open conversation and dialog about the issues does.
Yes, I agree that Mr. Hunt’s comments were offensive. Yes, they were sexist. But might there not have been a better approach? His comments clearly illustrate an ‘old school’ way of thinking, one women scientists and engineers still unfortunately encounter on a regular basis despite decades of change and progress. But firing every man who still subscribes to these old ways of thinking (or forcing them to resign from their position) is not a realistic solution. Like it or not, men still hold the majority of leadership roles in many STEM fields and engaging them as partners in the diversity discussion is absolutely necessary for us to successfully implement change in the workplace. Could we not have used this opportunity instead to educate Mr. Hunt, and others out there, about the value of diversity in STEM fields?
Colleen Layman is SWE’s incoming FY16 president.