The musings of a final year medical student

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sexism in science

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Most of us have heard about Sir Tim Hunt in the press. An honorary professor at the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences, he was coerced into his recent resignation following a sexist remark at a Seoul conference: "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.

Whether he had the intention to offend is unknown, but I doubt it. Whilst being a respected figure in his field of biochemistry, we will never know what he was like to work with. He may have been charming and egalitarian, or the infamous remark from Seoul may be a snapshot of his incredibly sexist ways.  

The Daily Mail and Brian Cox have jumped to his defence, claiming he was "hounded out" by social media and that he is a "scapegoat" for sexism. Assuming his comments were not intended to offend, and the fact that people in the STEM field have no doubt said worse, this internationally-mediatised comment still plays a role in the unconscious bias we all have. Even if he'd pushed the boat out and said "Women are shit in labs, ban all the women", the effect would be the same.

I've never worked in a lab. After hearing what he's said about girls in the lab, I'm not quite sure I would ever want to be in one. Comments like that will make less and less women want to contribute to academia and medical specialities if the movers and shakers of these fields are making them feel uncomfortable. What if you've never been in a lab? Well, you'll never know what they're like, but it's quite likely that Hunt's comment will make you assume that girls either don't work well in labs or shouldn't work there. He went to Cambridge, he's published books, he's got a PhD and a Nobel prize; surely he knows what he's talking about?

I feel sad to say that I've had a few unpleasant experiences with consultants being rude to me, even though I have only just finished first year! In one instance I was at a case-based learning session and after the doctor had asked the names of the boys, he then moved onto me: "You, the one in the top that looks like a Persian rug". (It's alright, clearly the man doesn't appreciate vintage silk blouses.) In another, I was presenting my musculoskeletal case and half way through the rheumatologist barked "That's enough, you've talked enough about that." 

These examples above are not all based on conscious or unconscious prejudice, however it does highlight a larger problem: medical students get a lot of shit from their superiors regardless of gender. Whether it is rooted in sexism or race, those factors are only a segment of the overarching mistreatment of hardworking young adults.

Caitlin Moran has said in the past that women feel uncomfortable in the world because the world wasn't designed for them; it was designed by and for their husbands. Whilst the world is changing everyday, assumptions and bias ingrained in society are hard to shake. Seeds of hope and change come from the people who decide to cast away bias and fight against it - but comments like Hunt's ruin these efforts. That's what makes his comment so bad. 

Thousands of women are going to feel hurt, annoyed and intimidated by one 'off the cuff' comment by one successful academic. And that is the power of sexism.

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