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Is Britain's sexist streak deeper than top scientist's 'trouble with girls'? (+video)

Professor Tim Hunt resigned today after making sexist comments about women working in the sciences. But some say his remarks are indicative of a bigger problem in the UK, most recently manifesting as boorish 'lad culture.'

If the British Nobel laureate Tim Hunt sparked stunned indignation by speaking of the “trouble with girls," there is one person who likely wasn’t surprised: Rashida Manjoo, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women.

Ms. Manjoo, on a fact-finding trip to Britain last year, concluded that sexism in Britain was more widespread than any other country she’d researched because of the persistence of its “boys’ club culture," she said at the time. 

Many people took issue with her assessment. The Telegraph newspaper ran an online poll asking: “Is Britain really the most sexist country in the world?” Thirteen percent of the 10,000 respondents – many of whom are likely British – agreed, while 79 percent did not.

Yet sexism remains a stubborn problem in British society – and a growing one, especially in its new iteration, the so-called “lad culture” that flourishes on college campuses and has led to national debate about how to curb it. Many hope that Mr. Hunt’s sexist remarks will engage feminists more deeply, especially younger ones who are most impacted by "lads." 

“This has galvanized a lot of different people,” says Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at the University of Sussex who studies “lad culture” and sexual harassment in higher education. “There is a vibrant conversation going on about feminism in higher education [which is] pushing institutions to have proper policies in place. We are starting to turn a corner.”

Ms. Phipps says it’s hard to measure the pervasiveness of sexism in one country compared to another. But she understands how Manjoo could leave Britain with that impression: “I think this kind of old boy sexism and laddish sexism is quite in your face,” she says.

Laddism

Britain's so-called “old boy network” – the product of societies like the Bullingdon Club, the all-male dining club at Oxford University to which Prime Minister David Cameron belonged – is a much older phenomenon. Similarly, the Ivy Leagues and their exclusive clubs are the breeding ground of the American political elite.

But it’s “lad culture” that’s a newer expression on campuses across Britain. 

“Lad culture” as a term can mean many things, explains Carolyn Jackson, a professor in the education department at Lancaster University working on a project on "lad cultures" in higher ed. But sexism is always central to it. 

In its widest expression it is banter. “Loud,” “boorish,” and “football and beer” is how university staff that Jackson has interviewed in her research describe it.

“Laddism is often presented as ironic, joking, as banter and therefore as harmless fun,” Ms. Jackson says. “However, the sexism and misogyny that are core to it are insidious and feed into a culture whereby women are presented and positioned as inferior and are objectified.”

The notion of the “lad” has morphed over the years. The word once described the working class “lads” of the 1970s. The so-called “New Lad," of the '90s, was portrayed as a rejection of the “New Man,” Jackson says, essentially the man who "helped with the washing up." In recent years, “lad culture" has become a hot subject both in the media and academia.

And that is one reason Mr. Hunt’s comments were so worrisome to those fighting to bolster equality in higher education. At a conference in South Korea yesterday Hunt, who won the Nobel in 2001 for his work in cells, was quoted as saying: “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 criticize them they cry."

The words come from the place where "lad culture" is most pervasive. And, says Phipps, they speak to “the kind of hierarchical gender relation in society." Hunt stepped down from his position as honorary professor at the University College of London today.

'Having trouble with girls'

For many, his defense of his words – he said that were "intended as a light-hearted, ironic comment" – speak to the ways in which sexism gets dismissed and downplayed.

But the public does not appear to be letting him off, judging by social media. And his words will be fodder for the young feminist organizations that Phipps and Jackson both say are increasingly taking root, in parallel to “lad culture,” across British campuses.  

On Wednesday Mr. Hunt apologized for what he said, but added he stood by some of his comments. "I did mean the part about having trouble with girls," he told the BBC.

“Girls” could say the same back. In a 2013 report commissioned by the National Union of Students and co-authored by Phipps, one of the findings placed the blame on the "lads” for their role in disrupting the classroom environment.

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