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Coffeetime Science: The Tip of the Iceberg

22nd June 2015
By Guest Author

Tim Hunt’s comments are a symptom of a deeper problem we need to fix in science.

Our institute’s coffee machine is being cleaned. We stare in disbelief at the display telling us we have to wait for another 348 seconds until we can make our coffee… So what’s new? “Did you read the most recent episode in the Tim Hunt saga, on how he claims he was ‘unfairly hung out to dry’?” I ask Narges. Everyone has been talking about Tim Hunt, and after the initial outrage as the story broke, there are now some voices piping up, saying he’s not that bad, he was only joking, being silly, etc. “How many times have I heard the ‘I-was-only-joking-stop-making-such-a-fuss’ response after complaining about a sexist comment from someone? It’s simply not good enough. If you aren’t sexist, don’t say things that are sexist, and if you are a Nobel laureate, an educated man in a position of leadership in science, THINK before opening your mouth”. I am angry, which is not helped by the fact that the coffee machine is still cleaning itself (45 seconds to go).

Narges agrees. “The problem is that Tim Hunt’s comments are the tip of the iceberg. And that iceberg of everyday sexism in science is huge”. Narges is right, and there have been some follow-up articles in The Guardian and in Nature recently highlighting this problem. Narges remembers an incident from when she started her PhD. In the first lab meeting she was presenting in, her PhD supervisor said “Let’s see who is the first to make Narges cry today”. Just think about that for a minute or two. It’s not just outrageous, it’s disgusting. Narges changed to a different lab and supervisor shortly after this incident. “Did anyone in the meeting speak up in your defense and challenge your supervisor about this comment?” I ask. “Of course not” she replies.

And therein lies a big part of the problem.

I, too, have experienced sexism in science throughout my career, ranging from serious comments and incidents to everyday attitudes and small remarks here and there. These things will not change unless people start calling people out on such things, unless they start challenging them in front of others, right there when the comment is made. ‘And for this, we need men and women to speak out’ I think to myself.

I am also guilty of not having spoken out in the past, though in my defense, this was when I was younger and mostly at the receiving end of the sexism, and any of my complaints were silenced with similar excuses to those made by Tim Hunt and on his behalf. “It was only a joke! It’s not a big deal! Stop being so sensitive! Things are better than they were 40 years ago, why do you keep complaining?” The list goes on.

In recent years, I have become more vocal and challenged people, and it is not something that makes you popular with your PI or your colleagues at times. I know for a fact that most of my male colleagues are not sexist, and disagree with a lot of the sexist remarks coming from the older generation of scientists. But they won’t speak out. Please, speak out! Imagine that female student standing there hearing that today’s meeting agenda is to make her cry, and imagine she is your mother/sister/girlfriend/daughter. Would you defend her? Absolutely! Please do the same for your colleagues. Young and inexperienced women in science in particular need others with more seniority and confidence to speak out on their behalves and challenge attitudes nurtured in labs – for the most part – by the Principal Investigators.

“It’s not all bad, though”, I interject. As much as I have experienced some pretty bad incidents of sexism, I have also worked in places where the gender balance is pretty even, where there are a lot of strong, vocal women, and where both women and men have zero tolerance for sexist attitudes and comments. “I think a big part of it also comes from the top, if the division chief or director or whatever sets the tone of zero tolerance of sexism, and makes an active effort to be fair and to ensure equality, this trickles down the ranks, and even those sexist dinosaurs among us have to start thinking twice before they say what they are probably thinking”.

We sip on our coffees (finally) and think of the men we know who are our allies. We need to make sure they know we appreciate them, and the difference they are inevitably going to make. Sexism is a problem for both men and women, and we will change things by realizing that and by working together to change attitudes.

Christine palmerAbout me: My name is Christine, and I am currently working as a research specialist at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After my undergraduate studies in Oxford, I moved to London for my PhD and first postdoc. After 7 years in this magnificent city, I was ready for an adventure and decided to go to Boston for 2 years for a second postdoc. As love and science made me swap rainy London for alternately deep-frozen or tropical Boston, 2 years turned into 5 (and counting), and I decided to deviate from the traditional academic trajectory to work as a staff scientist (the rather fancy title of my position is research specialist). Most days, I sit with post-docs and other staff scientists over lunch or coffee, and discussion topics range from the inane to career goals and options, our research, new techniques and technology and the like. I would like to share some of those topics with you in this blog. Want to join in? Grab yourself a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, read along, and leave comments. You can read my other blog posts here


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