Nobel laureate says female scientists are 'trouble' in the lab

Nobel winner Tim Hunt drew wide criticism after he said that female scientists cause trouble for men in the lab.

Nobel laureate Tim Hunt may be renowned for his work in medicine and physics, but this week he made headlines for an entirely different reason.

The British scientist stirred controversy Monday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea when he reportedly told his audience: “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.” Dr. Hunt added that he didn’t want to stand in the way of women, but that he was in favor of single-sex labs.

Hunt drew widespread criticism from both men and women after Connie St. Louis, who directs the science journalism program at City University, London, tweeted the unofficial transcript of his comments from the conference, adding, “Really, does this Nobel Laureate think we are still in Victorian times?”

The incident provided an opportunity for several to highlight the global progress in views toward female scientists, while drawing attention to the challenges still facing women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), where they remain underrepresented: Worldwide, only 30 percent of science researchers are women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

“While a growing number of women are enrolling in university, many opt out at the highest levels required for a research career,” according to UNESCO. “Women researchers also tend to work in the academic and government sectors, while men dominate the private sector which offers better salaries and opportunities.”

In the United States, women fill close to half of all jobs in the economy, but only a quarter of the positions in STEM. In US colleges and universities, female undergraduates complete a majority of biology and chemistry degrees, but physics, engineering, and computer science remain heavily male-dominated, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees, a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found. Math and earth sciences are fairly evenly divided across the genders.

And it is vital for STEM to diversify, if only because improved talent allocation leads to greater economic benefits, according to a study by the University of Chicago and Stanford. Having a more diverse workforce also brings creativity to the fore.

“When women are not involved in science and engineering, experiences, needs, and desires that are unique to women may be overlooked,” Christianne Corbett, a researcher who took part in the AAUW study, wrote for Nature.  

While governments and institutions are investing more in attracting women and girls into STEM, environmental factors continue to discourage women from pursuing science careers, according to the AAUW report. Among them are implicit biases about “male” versus “female” fields, a lack of encouragement to pursue science in the critical college years, and workplaces that don’t accommodate family needs.

“It’s not that women aren’t wanted,” journalist and life coach Marguerite del Giudice wrote for National Geographic. “But many cultural forces continue to stand in the way — ranging from girls being steered toward other professions from an early age and gender bias and sexual harassment in the workplace to the potentially career-stalling effects on women of having children.”

Hunt’s comments at the Korea conference served to highlight this reality, and a number of scientists took to Twitter to express their disappointment.

The Royal Society, where Hunt is a fellow, also distanced itself from his comments in a statement, saying that it believes “science needs to make the best use of the research capabilities of the entire population.”

On Wednesday, Hunt apologized on BBC Radio 4’s Today show, saying that he had meant his comments to be ironic — although he added that he did have romantic entanglements with women in the lab.

“[I]t is true that I have fallen in love with people in the lab and that people in the lab have fallen in love with me. It’s very disruptive to the science,” he told Today. “I’m really, really sorry that I caused any offense, that’s awful. I just meant to be honest, actually.”

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