The scandal surrounding British biochemist and Nobel laureate Tim Hunt would seem, at first glance, a shocking example of still-thriving sexism in science. Speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists last week in South Korea -- at the Women in Science Lunch, no less -- the 72-year-old Hunt offered his thoughts on "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."
Publicized by a couple of female journalists, the remarks sparked a Twitter firestorm, with Hunt denounced as a "clueless, sexist jerk." Daily Beast reporter Brandy Zadrozny wrote that the incident confirms sexism is "the norm" in male-dominated scientific fields. But the reaction to Hunt's comments shows the opposite: The norm is a commitment to gender equity that, while admirable, can result in a climate of overzealous policing.
Hunt, who says he was making an ill-conceived attempt to be jocular, was forced to resign from his research post at University College of London before he got home. He was forced to step down from the science committee of the European Research Council, which he had worked hard to help set up.
Several journalists who covered the story noted that Hunt's views were especially "astounding" considering that he had worked with distinguished female colleagues whose contributions he had praised -- and that he was married to a prominent female scientist, immunologist Mary Collins. Perhaps this should have been a tip-off that Hunt's comments did not represent his actual views. While some also reported that Hunt "doubled down" in defense of his statements later, his "defense" was to explain that he really did mean the part about falling in love in the lab.
Meanwhile, female scientists who have worked or studied with Hunt have come to his defense, saying he had always staunchly supported projects to aid women's advancement and mentored young scientists with no regard to gender.
A former student of Hunt's, Cambridge biologist Ottoline Leyser, told The Guardian, "I don't know why he said those silly things, but the way his remarks have been taken up implies that women in science are having a horrible time. That is not the case. I, for one, am having a wonderful time."
Leyser's optimistic view is supported by evidence. An extensive study by Cornell University researchers Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, published last October in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, concluded that with a few exceptions, the playing field in most areas of science is now level -- or even biased in favor of women when it comes to hiring and promotion.
Women remain a minority in scientific ranks, particularly in math-intensive disciplines. Some believe this is due in part to innate gender differences -- not because women can't do math, but because ability is more unevenly distributed among males, who are more likely to be clustered both at the top and at the bottom. Whether because of nurture or nature (or both), young women with high scientific ability are also more likely than their male peers to have interests in other areas and choose other professions. Balancing family life with labor-intensive science careers also remains a particular challenge for women.
Should we do more to ensure talented young women are not discouraged from the pursuit of science? Of course. But trumpeting horror stories of rampant male chauvinism in science is hardly the way to do it.
Neither is turning feminism in science into a punitive orthodoxy that deems career death a fitting punishment for outdated humor.