Tim Hunt ‘meant to be honest’ about girls

British Nobel Laureate apologises for causing offence, but stands by his comments about the “trouble with girls” in labs, saying he “just meant to be honest”.

Earlier this week at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt laid this on the audience during his remarks: “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.”

Hunt, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on cell division and now works for Cancer Research UK, wasn’t talking about whiny, distracting lab puppies. He was talking about women.

He went on to say that he thought people should work in gender-segregated labs but that he hoped such sentiment wouldn’t “stand in the way of women”.

Resigned: Tim Hunt has left his honorary professorship at University College London.Resigned: Tim Hunt has left his honorary professorship at University College London. Photo: AFP

The reaction in the science and science journalism community has been, well, about what you’d expect. I’m not going to embed any tweets, but my favourite lighthearted takes on the subject have been to the effect of: well to be fair, most female scientists have a “no Tim Hunt” policy in their labs, but where will we get that male co-author we’re supposed to have if the lab is all female?!

Outside the Twittersphere, the Royal Society distanced itself from Hunt’s remarks, reiterating its commitment to help women succeed in the sciences.

And why are Hunt’s feelings so troubling? Well, there’s this problem we’ve got where women are underrepresented in the sciences, math, technology and engineering. In fact, in Britain (Hunt’s home country) only 13 per cent of people working in STEM are women. In science academia, 84 per cent of full-time professors in the field are men. In the United States women get a share of science doctorates that hovers just above 25 per cent. One recent study claimed the problem had been solved, but other scientists were quick to dismantle the flaws in its methodology and cast doubt on its conclusions.

This isn’t to say that Hunt is the first Nobel laureate to use his elevated status to share some problematic remarks. James Watson is known for having some real zingers (of the racist and sexist variety) up his sleeve. What punishment did the politically correct hordes inflict on that soul? Well, he sold his Nobel Prize for $4 million, then had it returned to him by the Russian billionaire who’d bought it, as a gift. Rough, I know.

Hunt has since apologised via the BBC, but he seems to be as much in need of a lesson on proper apologies as he is on one in gender equality.

From the BBC:

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today program, he said he was “really sorry that I said what I said,” adding it was “a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists.”

The British biochemist, who became a Royal Society fellow in 1991, said the remarks were “intended as a light-hearted, ironic comment” but had been “interpreted deadly seriously by my audience”. He went on to say he stood by some of the remarks.

“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” he said. “It is true that people – I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field. I found that these emotional entanglements made life very difficult. I’m really, really sorry I caused any offence, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually.”

On his remarks about women crying, he said: “It’s terribly important that you can criticise people’s ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth.

“Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.”

Honesty is obviously important, but – really? These remarks were only troublesome because journalists were there to be offended by them? Obviously no one can force Hunt to be repentant for his personal belief that women are emotional time bombs, but a non-apology is never the answer. What’s a non-apology? Here’s a good summary from Pacific Standard Magazine:

The term “non-apology” first appeared in 1971, but it wasn’t commonly used until the late ’90s and then on into today. It’s when you apologise … if you’ve offended anyone. “I’m sorry … if you felt this way.” Or when you say you’re sorry because you didn’t mean to do whatever terrible thing you ended up doing. It’s a conditional apology. It’s an apology, plus more some words that make it into something that’s not an apology.

As the PS Mag piece goes on to explain, a non-apology is the aggressive version of an apology. To not apologise is passive, but to come out with one of these non-apologies shows an active refusal to admit your wrongdoing.

I’ve come under fire for being like “nah, that’s sexist,” before, so I decided to check my facts this time.


So, okay: Hunt is revealing that he has trouble dealing with women. There are probably a lot of older male scientists who feel this way. I know, I know, we ladies totally crashed the party! We’re so cheeky.

If Hunt said he wanted single-sex labs because he couldn’t help falling in love with female lab scientists – well, that’s kind of icky, too. But it’s his insistence – even in his apology – that women, as a group, cry to get what they want that really sticks the landing.

Maybe Hunt is guilty of hiring the wrong people all-around, if it’s just inter-lab affairs and the howling lamentations of women in there 24/7. If Hunt has an HR problem, he should go ahead and fix it – not use it as the basis for proposing that labs be segregated. (Also, how would that even work? Where would people outside the gender binary go? Would labs full of non-heterosexuals descend into the same weepy, chaotic interpersonal jumble that Hunt fears? I HAVE QUESTIONS.)

But let’s call this what it really is: Just the inescapable truth for countless women working in science. They have colleagues – bosses in a position of great power, even, with globally recognised accolades – who seem to genuinely believe they just can’t help but cry when they’re criticised. They can’t help it, mind, it’s a lady problem. And that’s no way to do science now, is it?

When men believe women are inherently less capable of handling the rigors of science and working professionally without falling over themselves to date their colleagues, they’re not going to be considered for the jobs they should be considered for. They’re not going to perform as well in those labs. They’re not even going to make it to those labs, because someone earlier in their career pipeline has already hit them with this roadblock.

No one expects another apology from Hunt: He’s at peace with what he said. And that’s the problem. Hunt’s views are not outside the norm. They will not have him booted from his institution. No one wants his head on a platter. They just really really wish he could stop having these views, because they’re incredibly harmful to women in a field that’s already making women run up the down escalator.

In some ways, Hunt is right in apologising only for saying these things in front of an audience that took offence. If he said them in his lab, it’s safe to say, none of the women under fire would disagree with him. That would just be a bad career move.