Distractingly Sexy: Hunt the Fool

Having been somewhat distracted this week, I have a question. But first some background.

It is beyond dispute that Tim Hunt’s comments about women scientists were crassly ill-judged and offensive. Far too many careers have been undermined by conduct reflecting such attitudes for the attempted parody of them not to provoke angry reaction. The man himself, however, is apparently reputed to walk the walk of gender equality and respect, despite his grotesque failure to talk the talk.

One good thing to come out of this business is the viral effect of Hashtag DistractinglySexy: for several days, the social media were flooded with images of women scientists channelling an impulse of anger into a highly entertaining and solidaristic cyber-show that I suspect may well have encouraged more girls and young women to view more positively the idea of becoming a scientist.

Meanwhile, the venerable biologist himself has been forced to resign by his university, his reputation ‘ruined by rush to judgement’.

So who has come out of this the worst?

By my reckoning so far: Tim Hunt has – whether inadvertently or by clumsy design – held up to public view a still live problem; he has unwittingly catalysed a festive social media display of scientists as fun and normal people and not just a bunch of socially-challenged men; he has, on the accounts of women who know him, made a substantial contribution to supporting women making a career in science.

By that reckoning, the mortification that he has quite palpably experienced on realising just how badly he misjudged his talk, seems a punishment not obviously inadequate to his crime. He does seem to be a man of previous good character, to not have had wicked intent, and not even, when all things are considered, done clear harm to anyone. He has apologised. I trust enough in people’s sense of fairness to think people will not want to keep kicking a man when he is clearly down.

To answer my question, then, I would say that to have come out of this the worst is his university. And not for the reason its administration seems to think. If it had been harbouring all this time a fellow guilty of professional misconduct, it should be ashamed not to have done something about it before now. If it has not in fact had any evidence, or even allegation, of such conduct, then to threaten him with summary termination would be shameful. The actual ground of dismissal is apparently that of bringing the institution into disrepute. Really? The poor man brought himself into disrepute; but the university – by allowing kneejerk PR reaction to supplant any due consideration of its proper course of action – has, in my view, brought itself into disrepute.

I cannot help but think, more generally, that as universities become increasingly subject to unreflective PR calls, the more reputational own goals they are going to score. Meanwhile, threatening, bullying and undermining behaviour are supposed to be things we are all against in recognizing diversity and equality. As far as I can see, Tim Hunt is not guilty of those things. I’m not sure we can say the same of his university.

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