The Problem With Sir Tim Hunt's Comments About Women in Science

The trouble with girls in the lab, as Nobel Prize Winner Sir Tim Hunt is reported to have said this week, is that you fall in love with them and they fall in love with you and, when you criticize them, they cry.

I realize that Sir Tim Hunt probably thought he was being light-hearted or funny, but in a world where women still face real discrimination in science it is spectacularly inappropriate for someone so prominent to say the things he has said. It betrays a certain mind-set and one that is particularly worrying when you consider that academic interview panels, funding boards and government advisory groups are often dominated by senior male scientists.

I'm certainly not saying that all senior male scientists are misogynists. Indeed I have many senior male colleagues and friends in the scientific community who I admire and respect and who have helped me immensely in my career. But I also have anecdotes of situations where a senior male scientist has behaved inappropriately.

These have generally involved minor comments and slights. For example I was once working on an electron microscope and a male professor came in and said 'hmph, a woman driver.' But the fact that even in the 21st Century comments like this are being made, shows that women in science are still not being treated the same as men.

Worryingly, it's not even confined to the 'old professors.' When reviewing their instructors in an online course, students rated male identities higher than female ones even when it was the same person doing the teaching (Innovative Higher Education, DOI: 10.1007/s10755-014-9313-4). Given that UK universities place such high weight on student feedback, this is yet another example of life as a female scientist still being made more challenging. Add to that the difficulty (and often lack of funding) available if you want to take maternity leave during a PhD or postdoctoral fellowship and it's easy to see why gender imbalance is such a problem in science.

Aside from the issues of sexism, the main thing that struck me about Sir Tim Hunt's words was the suggestion that love in the lab cannot work. Having met my husband during my chemistry degree I have to disagree. Far from being a distraction, being married to another scientist is actually just convenient. Getting ahead in science is a lot easier if you are prepared to move to labs all over the world for research experience. The fact that my husband and I were both in a similar field meant we could easily find postdoctoral positions where we could live together. We travelled to Germany and then to Japan, working in the same building and even adjacent offices.

During my time working in science I have met many couples who have met in the lab and moved around the world working together. It can be enormously productive to work with your partner. Inevitably you learn about each other's research and you can help each other by reviewing drafts of papers or research proposals. I trust my husband as my most honest critic. I've certainly cried a few times. But if you don't feel passionately about your research then you're in the wrong career.

My husband and I have even been able to work together on some research. We have six joint papers, a joint research grant and numerous joint experiments at beamlines, such as Diamond Light Source. In fact, when my first synchrotron beamtime proposal was accepted I didn't think twice about the person I wanted on my team. The synchrotron can be intense. Running a 48 hour experiment and having to make fast decisions you need people you can rely on absolutely. When you're exhausted and crabby it's also nice to know you'll be forgiven.

I think both my husband and I would say it's been hugely beneficial to work together in science. Academic life can be very strange and stressful and it's fantastic to have a partner who understands that.