The Response to Tim Hunt’s Sexist Remarks is Deeply Flawed
It is by now surely unnecessary to repeat the sexist remarks that cost Tim Hunt his position at UCL (1, 2). A closer look at the public response to Hunt’s comments at the World Conference of Science Journalists is much more revealing. University College London reported Hunt’s departure in a terse statement on its website. Phrased in the usual PR speak, this statement combines the news of Tim Hunt’s with a few sentences that point to the university’s contributions to gender equality. The Daily Mail, true to type, reports that outraged feminists forced Hunt to go. The Guardian writes about sexism in science and ingrained gender inequality in British public life, but has also published an interview with Hunt and his wife that is deeply critical of UCL’s response to the scandal. The Guardian is right to point to the challenges women face, both in Britain and at the international level, in seeking to build academic careers. Still, none of the texts it has published, nor, to my knowledge, any other that have been issued throughout the media frenzy of the last few days, cut to the core of academia’s gender problem.
To begin with, the issue has largely been presented in terms of the sexist attitudes of a single academic. In a commentary in Times Higher Education, Ottoline Leyser suggests that Hunt’s remarks were “spectacularly inept” and argues against his views. In another article, Times Higher Education cites the Royal Society’s avowed commitment to gender equality and quotes the disapproving voices of various high-profile members of the academic establishment. Even though all of them are certainly right to condemn the careless sexism of a world-renowned scientist, criticism of a single individual is unlikely to entail improvements in gender equality in British academia at large.
What is needed, instead, is a critical assessment of the social, economic and political structures and the cultural narratives that sustain academic patriarchy. The Guardian has a go in its review of sexism in science and looks at issues such as unconscious gender bias and questionable hiring practices for STEM (non-medical science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers. It suggests:
Universities should set implicit bias tests for their science departments and adapt practices accordingly. There are proven ways to tackle it, for example by peer-reviewing hiring and grant-making decisions. The scientific community also needs to take more responsibility for setting itself more challenging targets, and attaching consequences to failure to meet them. Could the research councils make a proportion of funding contingent on institutions improving gender diversity in science at all levels?
What is so frustrating about these proposals is that they overlook and, indeed, reinforce the sources of male dominance in academic labor. To begin with, The Guardian explicitly limits its arguments to the much-hyped STEM subjects, suggesting that to “keep up with the international science race, Britain urgently needs more women in the lab.” It justified the need for greater gender equality in STEM as follows: “Boosting the numbers of women in science and technology is critical, not just for equality’s sake but also for economic growth: Britain faces an annual shortfall of around 40,000 Stem graduates”. The humanities and social sciences, as usual these days, fall by the wayside, as, one may presume, they add little to the ‘science race’ and economic growth. By omitting these academic fields from the picture, The Guardian also omits their contributions to feminist politics, both within academia and beyond, for more than a century. It is hard to believe that gender equally is achievable if it is presented as a mere instrument in the pursuit of economic growth.
Second, by presenting academic labor as a competitive race and emphasizing its contribution to economic growth, The Guardian buys into precisely the kind of hierarchical, competitive, masculinist and ultimately patriarchal way of thinking that has been so detrimental to gender equality in academia. In this, it is arguably representative of much of the debate of the last few days. In recent years, British universities have gleefully refashioned themselves in the image of the business corporation, espousing the language of corporate management, the hierarchical forms of organization, the competitive mode of operations, and the profit motive that are the source of corporate machismo (1, 2). This trend has led to the abandonment of many of the more egalitarian features of British academic culture and many of the achievements of feminism in academia in previous decades.
These are problems that have received very little public attention. They will continue to be ignored as long as universities continue to be portrayed mostly as motors of economic growth and their transformative potential in political and cultural terms is forgotten. In this sense, the debate about Tim Hunt’s words is unlikely to change much at all.