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Can Tim Hunt say whatever he likes because he is a ‘good guy’?

Professor Tim Hunt

Editor’s choice: reader’s letter

By David Guest

In June, Nobel prize winning scientist Tim Hunt 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.”

The outcry against Hunt’s sexist remarks was discussed in the Living section of your newspaper by Richard Dickenson, whose articles are often amusing. However, the article, while attempting a light-hearted touch, is offensive in tone and illogically argued. In defending Hunt, the article trivialises the severe difficulties faced by women in academia and other male-dominated fields, and more disturbingly gives support and encouragement to the worst sort of sexist.

Perhaps the article is not meant to be taken seriously, but where the rights of people within a society are not given equally to all members it becomes a serious matter. Everyone agrees that women should have equal rights, and yet if we look around the higher positions in Western society, including academia, the balance of men to women is massively skewed in favour of men.

Dickerson’s article – “Sexism and why we need to separate good guys from bad” – uses humour to cover a series of weak attempts to argue against women’s rights. If we look at the introduction, we see the writer claims that if you dislike someone you will be accused of offensive behaviour, such as racism. Yes, of course you will if you say that you dislike the person on the grounds of their colour, sex etc., but not otherwise. It is also a poor argument that relies on name-calling, using terms such as “rabid twerp”, “lunatic” and “incompetent, selfish, greedy, femino-fascists”.

The claim that Hunt is good is first assumed and later, circularly, confirmed. Tim Hunt may or may not be a good guy, but even if he is a good guy, does that excuse his behaviour? Despite the opinion expressed in the article, there cannot be any protection from criticism on the grounds that the individual is beneficial in other areas of life. A brief search of one’s memory banks will turn up many notorious examples.

The article makes use of the excuse that males are inherently predatory. This must mean in their hunt for women. Women in labs are regularly subject to unwanted attention by this type of predatory male. If Hunt’s remarks went unchallenged such predatory males would be emboldened to continue their actions. I have heard many first-hand reports of female scientists in labs in prestigious universities being daily affected by unthinking sexist treatment. Women are usually low in status and fear a backlash if they complain. Indeed, despite the threat, some do complain and are treated along the dismissive lines of this article.

Another seemingly telling point is that men and women are different in psychological nature. But is it really a natural truth that men should be in charge? Human nature certainly has inherited content, but the influence of social effects is discounted by those who argue in this way. Most theorists say that the urge to form groups is fundamental to human nature, and that it may lead to one sub-group dominating the larger society. In this article it is taken for granted that the group “males” should dominate. No-one seriously claims that any group should have more rights in our society than another. And yet this is the gist of supporting sexism.

The article is really saying that his group (middle/upper class men) knows best and has the right to “admonish the others for incompetence”. What about the incompetence of Hunt in making such ill-advised sexist thoughts public? Why should he not be admonished?

The scarcity of women at the upper levels of society despite their higher performance at the lower levels of school and university is something that should be addressed properly. Hunt’s comments demeaned female scientists who face such disheartening remarks and far worse on a daily basis. The fact that this condescending article peppered with name-calling has been written with some humour does not justify or excuse the writer’s assumption that this light kind or any kind of sexism is acceptable. Women’s rights are held back and the worst kind of male predators are encouraged by these sexist remarks.

David Guest, Platy, Nicosia

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