I really hope that Sir Tim Hunt is a fan of “Spinal Tap”. There is a scene in Christopher Guest’s magnificent spoof rockumentary when one of the characters is accused of being sexist. “What’s wrong with being sexy?” he answers back. Please tell me that this was Sir Tim’s response when he was branded an “insensitive sexist” following some rather salty comments about the gender divide at a conference in South Korea.
I don’t mean to make light of Sir Tim’s remarks that women are big trouble when you give them a white coat and put them in the lab. Actually, I do mean to make light of it. Clearly, Sir Tim had taken leave of his senses when he addressed an audience of very serious-minded people with the following: “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.”
Sir Tim is 72-years-old and has had a glorious career. In 2001, he won the Nobel Prize for his ground-breaking work on how cells divide and was honorary professor at University College London. At least he was until yesterday when UCL announced that he had resigned his position, saying this outcome (ie Sir Tim’s departure) “is compatible with our commitment to gender equality”.
I can’t help thinking that this may be an over-reaction. Of course, what Sir Tim said was neither appropriate nor sensitive. Nor were they the words of a man particularly in tune with the modern world. And he ignored the first rule of someone who’s in a hole: stop digging.
He went on the radio to say that, while he was sorry to cause offence, he meant what he said. “I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people have fallen in love with me,” this lothario of the laboratory told the Today programme, “and it’s very disruptive to the science.” While saying that this was just an honest opinion, expressed light-heartedly, Sir Tim slightly gave the game away when he added that it was “a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists”. If only his comments hadn’t been reported, we may have been none the wiser.
Nevertheless, was Sir Tim’s offence serious enough to send his career up in a puff of smoke? I think that public institutions, second-guessing what the public reaction may be, have become hopelessly lily-livered in the face of this sort of brouhaha. Was anyone really, truly offended by Sir Tim? Or was it a confected outrage? I believe the reaction of most women would be to shrug their shoulders and ask: what planet is he from?
We all know Sir Tim was politically incorrect, bordering on the bonkers. But where is our tolerance? He made some stupid remarks, but it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t in any way affect his competence as a scientist, and the idea that a Nobel Laureate should be thrown out of his university for a relatively innocuous gaffe is a matter of shame. It’s the university elders who need the men in white coats, in my view.