Wednesday, June 24, 2015

And you thought Tim Hunt was bad?

I’ve been sort of following the ink trail on Tim Hunt’s comments (which, incidentally, seems to have made the trail following Alice Huang go cold (just like in politics!)), so the topic of sexism in academia has been on my mind. I don’t think I have anything useful to say on the Hunt thing beyond what’s already out there. Even before Tim Hunt, I have a lot of female trainees in my lab, and I thought I had a sense of the sort of serious obstacles they face, including the sorts of comments like those from Hunt. And yes, comments like those are a serious obstacle. Disappointing and damaging, but not entirely surprising to hear stuff like that, although perhaps not in such a public forum.

It is in that context that I was absolutely shocked to hear someone I know tell me about her experiences at a major US institution. Seriously inappropriate comments in the workplace, including heavy-handed sexual advances. Women being groped and physically pushed around behind closed doors. Men in power using that power to touch women inappropriately, and as was intimated without details, worse. Worse to the point that a woman has a physical reaction when a certain man enters the room. And an institution that essentially protects these predators.

My jaw was on the floor. And the response to my shock was “Arjun, you have no idea, this stuff is happening all the time.” All the time. (To be clear, this institution is not Penn.)

The woman said that it seems to be much more of a problem with the older generation of men. I suppose we can wait for them to retire and go away. My sense of justice makes me feel like these people should have to pay for what has likely been a career of preying on women. And any institution that enables this sort of behavior needs some pretty deep soul searching. Even if such behavior is less prevalent in the newer generation, that is no guarantee that it is eliminated. And even having one such person around is one too many.

I am purposefully not naming any names because this is some pretty serious stuff, and ultimately, it’s not really my story to tell. I just wanted to bring it up because while I think we have come a long way, for me, it was a wake-up call that we still have a very long way to go.

Also, I want to make sure that this post isn’t misconstrued as some sort of minimization of the negative impact of Tim Hunt’s frankly bewildering statements. Words matter. Actions matter. It all matters. Indeed, I see the reaction to Tim Hunt’s comments as a strongly positive indicator of how far the discussion has come. Rather, I also want to point out that the reason the discussion is where it is comes from the tireless efforts of women through the decades who have put up with things I couldn’t even imagine, whose very decision to stay in science can be regarded as an act of deep courage and bravery. The thing that blew my mind is that women are still making those decisions to this day.


  1. There's an organization in Israel called "one of one", since it seems that, in Israel at least, almost 1 out of 1 women/girl was sexually harassed or worse, at least at one point in their lives. This, of course, does not exclude academia. Just this past month there were two occasions of professors forced to retire due to sexual harrasments. Unfortunately, there were no other consequences to their actions (i.e. jail) due to an "agreement" between the university and the harrased student.
    I am still surprised that women these days are afraid to comment and complain about such behavior.

    1. The name "one of one" sounds sadly appropriate...

      The question of tolerating such behavior is such a difficult one. There are definitely repercussions for blowing the whistle, even in a generally supportive environment (and that's already a bit assumption). I wonder if I would have the strength to stand up for what I believe knowing that it may jeopardize my career and all the things I've worked so hard for in my life.

  2. Thank you for posting this. We need more men like you, and my hope is we are moving towards that more rapidly than not. It really is mind boggling when women start talking to each other, often in hushed overtones. No wonder the hashtag #yesallwomen lit up twitter the way it did. Check it out if you haven't.

  3. Hi Arjun,

    I fully agree that Tim Hunt's statement is the tip of the iceberg, and I further think that the abuses are not limited only to academia or only to sexism and women. The most special aspect about Tim's statement is that it was aired in public and got much attention. Many people choose not to air abuses in fear of retaliation and worse consequences. That concealment is what makes bullying possible; I know of many case that are far worse than Tim's statement and were never aired out.