Were the comments of Tim Hunt about women in science labs appalling? Most certainly so. Was it justified to make him resign from his position at UCL and dismiss him from various committees? I tend to think so although these consequences would have, and should have in my opinion, been avoidable if only the man had offered his sincere apologies and had shown some level of understanding of to what extent these kinds of ‘jokes’ are offensive to women.
Some people come to Tim Hunt’s defense by claiming it was ‘just a joke’. I can tell you, being a woman, this is not funny, not in the least. I’m sadly familiar with these types of ‘jokes’, for example the Dutch saying “the only right of a woman is to stand behind the kitchen counter” (het enige recht van de vrouw is het aanrecht). It’s fortunately less and less common to say this but still, to this day, some people say this out loud; purportedly meant to be a joke, but I’m fairly certain that this saying holds at least a small grain of truth for these people.
Yet others admit that Tim Hunt’s comments are appalling but they do not see how his remarks make him a sexist (for example Athene Donald). Although I can see what Athene Donald and others mean – there could be a discrepancy between someone’s words and his/her actions – I do wonder if we would have had this discussion at all if the comments were made about, say, people of color. Imagine for a moment that Tim Hunt would have said: “I think segregated labs are better: people of color always want to dance, hereby distracting the white scientists. And when I confront them with their behavior, they run away”. I’m absolutely sure that there would have been no civilized discussion about whether Tim Hunt is a racist; and rightly so. Because such remarks are stereotyping an entire group: it is not true, it hurts and is therefore unnecessarily offensive. Such comments are racist – and in the case of Hunt’s actual remarks – sexist, regardless of whether someone acts upon the stereotypes that secretly linger behind so-called jokes.