Sunday, June 14, 2015

Women in STEM, silencing the opposition

The main news regarding women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) last week was that of Nobel Prize winner and biochemist, Sir Tim Hunt putting his foot in his mouth at a conference in Seoul. He'd been asked to speak at a meeting about women in STEM and the not-so-enlightening words he managed to utter were:

"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."

I have to admit, I laughed in disbelief when I first read these words. What was he thinking? Was it an attempt at a bad joke? Or was this his honest opinion? Whatever his reason for saying these words, the reactions did not wait. Twitter exploded. Some of the reactions are quite constructive and entertaining, such at the #distractinglysexy hashtag, others are not worth quoting as they mainly consist of name-calling and distasteful language.

As a result of all this, Sir Tim Hunt has been forced to resign from his honorary researching position at the University College London (UCL) and from his science commitee seat at The European Research Council. His wife, who is a biologist, has also suffered a blow to her career as she is a professor at the same university. In short, his career is over.

Three sentences was all it took to end the career of a Nobel Prize winner. That scares me. That scares me a lot more than a male scientist criticising women in STEM. Is this what we're doing now? Throwing away great scientists because of one mistake, taking away their chance of further research into the field we all love so much?

Has women in STEM become such a controversial topic that anyone who is against gender equality, or anyone who has an opinion on diversity that isn't mainstream, should be silenced? Do we need to remind each other how history has played out with regard to the silencing of opposition?

In order to have a healthy discussion about women in STEM, or any topic for that matter, we must be able to communicate and listen to each other. Only then can we identify the true issues and find a solution that will last. Silencing those who have different opinions than us by using threats, name-calling and forced resignations is dangerous and might weaken the cause. What happens the next time you want to organize a meeting about women in STEM and no one dares speak up, because they're afraid of saying something that might be misinterpreted and cause them to lose their jobs? Whatever cause you're fighting for, if you silence your opposition by any of the measures mentioned above, you will most likely be hurting your cause more than helping it.

Why can't we all rise above public shaming? And why couldn't UCL have been content with a public apology? I was sad when I read the words of Sir Tim Hunt, but I'm equally sad to see the damaging effect those words have had on a great scientist.

Disclaimer: I call the words of Tim Hunt a mistake in my post, this is to make it easier for myself to express my opinions without having to elaborate too much. His words might have been deliberate, they might have been a mistake, that is not for me to say. To be clear, I am all for women in STEM and there's nothing I want more than gender equality. 

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