#distractinglysexy … why we have to work with renewed vigour towards gender equality in STEM careers

Part of me feels rather sorry for Sir Tim Hunt, the Nobel Prize winner whose recent comments to an audience of journalists in Seoul have landed him in hot water. Being hounded by the national and international press – not to mention the entire world online, it would seem – cannot be much fun. His comments about female scientists were, he said, intended to be ironic and jocular, and both his ex-wife and his current wife have confirmed that he is a believer in gender equality (he does the household chores, apparently), although his ex-wife did say that he often speaks without thinking.

Well, he may reflect wryly, on this occasion he clearly did speak without thinking. When he said “Let me tell you about my 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 criticise them, they cry”, he may have thought that he was being funny – or reflecting on a bygone age, perhaps – but this sort of remark is just too raw and contentious to raise roars of laughter from women who have experienced, and who continue to experience, the reality of the sexism embodied in these views. As he found to his cost, his remarks elicited quite the opposite reaction to that he intended.

Sir Tim is obviously an intelligent man. He is also obviously a successful man. He has made real inroads into human understanding about how cells work, and he has contributed to the journey towards finding a cure for cancer. It is debatable whether all of this should count for nothing when weighed against a few apparently humorous remarks at a lunch. On the other hand (and this is the crux of the matter) for many women in the audience and in the wider world of STEM-related jobs and careers, the issue is – plainly and simply – just not funny.

In fact, it is the opposite of funny. The stats – not all but most, from wherever they are sourced – show that STEM jobs are still male-dominated, and this means that there is still work to be done to change pathways, processes and attitudes to make it possible for women to operate on an equal playing field with men in this sphere. And behind this will lie countless stories of women having to fight, being worn down, and – most certainly – losing their own personal sense of humour over sexist jokes, however fondly they were intended.

In an odd way, it would be great if we could get ourselves to a place where we could find Sir Tim’s remarks funny – funny because they reflected an era where such attitudes were commonplace but which was now long gone: an era with which we had all been able to make our peace. Sadly, we are not yet there, as Sir Tim has discovered to his immense cost. This unfortunate case should renew our desire to accelerate the pace of change, however. The sooner we can leave it behind us, the sooner we might actually find it funny.

One glimpse of hope: the hordes of female scientists who have taken to Twitter using the hashtag #distractinglysexy, posting pictures and comments which show them achieving amazing things in STEM. The majority of comments – while inevitably sardonic and with a bit of a bite – are actually genuinely amusing, and are worth dipping into. When we finally get to a stage in our development as a society where we can all look back and laugh, celebrating our shared achievements in gender equality in this field as in others, then we really will have taken a step forward in STEM.

Onwards …

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