Alastair Grant/AP/File
A 2001 file photo shows Dr. Tim Hunt, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, in a laboratory in London.

Nobel laureate resigns after controversial remark: Is academia sexist?

British scientist Tim Hunt said he was being honest when discussing his trouble with women in the lab. From a job and wage standpoint, women reportedly are still having problems in the world of math and science education.

Following comments widely criticized as sexist, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt has resigned from his post at a UK university, reigniting a debate about sexism in academia.

Hunt, a biochemist who won the 2001 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, sparked controversy Monday when he told an audience of science journalists in South Korea, “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."

In his apology, Hunt stood by his comments.

"I did mean the part about having trouble with girls," he told the BBC in an interview. "It is true that people -- I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it's very disruptive to the science because it's terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field," he said.

"I'm really, really sorry I caused any offense, that's awful. I certainly didn't mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually," he added.

The comments drew widespread criticism and reignited a global debate about gender bias and discrimination in academia.

Many, like Kate Devlin, a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, used humor to puncture Hunt's hypothesis.

Underlying the controversy are serious gender disparities in academia and the sciences.

In 2012, 62 percent of men in academia were tenured compared to only 44 percent of women, who were far more likely to be in non-tenure track positions than men (32 percent of women in academia compared to just 19 percent of men), according to the American Association of University Professors.

in 2013, women earned about half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering and 38 percent of doctorates, but only made up 26 percent of tenured faculty members, according to National Science Foundation statistics.

The disparity is especially pronounced in the sciences, where only 30 percent of science researchers worldwide are women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

What's behind the disparity? Is academia – as Hunt's comments may suggest – sexist?

The debate on this remains vigorous, but evidence points to a continuing bias against women in science and academia.

In 2012, researchers at Yale found that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to favor a young male scientist over a woman with nearly identical qualifications and are more likely to offer the man a job, the New York Times reported in 2013. What's more, when women get hired, their salaries average nearly $4,000 less than what men are paid, according to the study.

Another study by the American Historical Association looked at promotions within university history faculties. It found that being married helped men achieve promotions, but that the opposite was true for women.

And according to an analysis of the website by Northeastern University professor Benjamin Schmidt, even performance evaluations can reveal gender bias.

"Reviews of male professors are more likely to include the words “brilliant”, “intelligent” or “smart”, and far more likely to contain the word “genius," the Guardian reported. "Meanwhile, women are more likely to be described as “mean”, “harsh”, “unfair” or “strict”, and a lot more likely to be called “annoying."

But others point out the progress women have made.

In a widely read 2014 New York Times piece, "Academic Science Isn't Sexist," Cornell professors Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci argued that women in math-intensive fields are on par with their male counterparts.

"They are more likely to receive hiring offers, are paid roughly the same (in 14 of 16 comparisons across the eight fields), are generally tenured and promoted at the same rate (except in economics), remain in their fields at roughly the same rate, have their grants funded and articles accepted as often and are about as satisfied with their jobs," the authors wrote.

More women are entering and staying in academia and the sciences, thanks to flexible hours and longer maternity leaves, they added.

Whatever progress has been made, Hunt's comments were received as a setback. Referring to his remarks, an article in UK's The Independent noted, “With lab rats like him, is it any wonder there’s a shortage of women in science?”

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