If you aren’t aware of it, this week another eminent old white guy (OWG) dug himself into a hole. This time it was Oxbridge-educated Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, also a Fellow of the Royal Society. In other words a privileged old white guy in a position of power and authority. At the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul he apparently made some rather stunning comments about women in science, saying gender-segregated labs were better for science, because women cause trouble for men by falling in love and crying, or something to that effect. His comments were live-tweeted by Connie St Louis.
He has since apologised for upsetting people but stands by his comments – he says he was just being honest and humorous. It’s worth noting that according to Wikipedia, Sir Hunt also sits on the Shaw Prize Life Science and Medicine selection committee; just one of the 25 people awarded this Prize has been a woman*. The Royal Society have released a statement distancing themselves from the debacle, saying Sir Hunt was speaking as an individual and adding “Too many talented individuals do not fulfil their scientific potential because of issues such as gender” and that the Society is committed to helping solve the problem.
I want to raise two points:
1. That’s not an apology.
Sir Hunt has made the classic mistake of thinking he has apologised when he hasn’t. This is what an apology should look like:
I am sorry that I hold such unsubstantiated biased views. I apologise to all the women I have disadvantaged as a result of holding these views while also holding positions of power and influence. Similarly, I apologise to the men I have advantaged, further perpetuating the endemic bias and privilege in the sciences.
2. The Royal Society (and other such bodies) need to do more to solve the problem.
It is not enough for the Royal Society to just distancing themselves from comments like these by people they have bestowed honours on, and pointing to what they are doing to try to help. Here is another suggestion. Give all your Fellows and Council training to recognise ALL their unconscious biases and to see that they are unjustified. Such a move is crucial to tackle the systemic disadvantage faced by many who aren’t privileged OWGs, or privileged OWGs in training.
*This year, the amazing and fantastic Bonnie Bassler. Woohoo!