Tim Hunt and Alice Huang: Power, sex, and business as usual.

 

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So a Nobel Prize winner goes to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, and says at lunch:

“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.” 

and added that he was “in favour of single-sex labs” but “doesn’t want to stand in the way of women.” He also described himself as a chauvinist pig .

Tim Hunt was forced to resign from his honorary post at University College London after a world-wide storm of publicity.

8 Nobel Prize winners and the mayor of London  came to his defense, several saying that the firing of Hunt was a blow against academic freedom. Sir Andre Geim, who shared the Nobel with Hunt, said that Hunt had been crucified by ideological fanatics.

Idealogical fanatics? Right, that equality issue is so far out there that only a fanatic would defend it.

Hunt’s self-serving defense suggested he knew was trying in his way to be honest but spoke too lightly, felt badly, but he gave no indication that he understood why people were bothered.

“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. 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.”

It is true that people fall in love in the lab. Hunt met his wife, Mary Collins, when he supervised her at Cambridge. Scientists meet scientists in labs, but when one is the boss, and male, there is not likely to be a level playing field.

The Hunt debacle followed by only a few weeks another media firestorm, centered around Alice Huang. Huang, who served in many scientific and administrative positions, writes a column for Science Careers. A postdoc wrote to ask advice about her advisor, who continually tried to look down her shirt. Huang answered with a little riff about how good it is that there are people of the opposite sex in labs, and that the behavior of the advisor was common but did not rise to the definition of sexual harassment.

Huang then advised the postdoc to take it with good humor, to be sure her advisor listened to her ideas and her science, and ended by saying, “His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on on your science and his best advice.”

Yes, she does, but this sounds a lot like “put up and shut up,” a real disappointment in view of Huang’s usual strong positions in favor of gender equality in the lab. And while there was a fuss and so many complaints that Science removed the article , the level of discontent came nowhere reaching the magnitude of the reaction that Hunt’s remarks did. Much of the anger seemed to be directed against AAAS and Science for removing the article.

Huang apologized for putting AAAS and Science in the firing line, and said she was trying, in view of all the harassment she had seen, to give a realistic response. She said she intends to take reader’s comments and write another column.

What were Hunt and Huang thinking, to say what they said? Did they think it was okay?

Perhaps Hunt was thinking…Look, love in the lab is tough on everyone. I myself didn’t deal well with it, and didn’t always deal well with women. They caused me inconvenience. It may have cost them more than that, and that isn’t fair. (But he didn’t say that.)

Maybe Huang was thinking….Look, it is absolutely wrong that your advisor is staring at your chest. But frankly, there isn’t much you can do that isn’t going to put you in a worse position if you complain. It isn’t right, and we need to find a way to deal with situations that seem petty but could change someone’s career. (But she didn’t say that.)

Huang’s and Hunt’s remarks show the still-present sexism and the penalty women pay to be in the lab. But I think Huang’s remark, though better-intentioned and less-selfish, caused much more harm. It seems to be an admission of hopelessness.

That postdoc should be able to say- with the humor Huang recommends- Hey, please stop looking at my breasts. And the advisor should be able to say- Gosh, I am sorry, that is so rude! It won’t happen again! So, let’s look at those results…..and he would never mention it again, or act resentful, or withdraw, or be passive-aggressive. Or look at her chest.

The most likely thing that would happen if the postdoc speaks up is that the advisor makes the atmosphere so uncomfortable that the postdoc must seek another work situation. If she wants to remain in the lab and wants a good recommendation, she has to keep her mouth shut.

There are no structures in academia that do not bow to power, usually male. That is what Huang should have mentioned. This needs to be changed. Lab heads in power probably could use some emotional and social counseling. 

Huang also met her husband, Nobel-prize winning David Baltimore, through research, and he was her supervisor at the Salk and at MIT. Did this make for an even playing field for others in the lab? If not, would there be a way to quietly seek justice? Will it remain that the person with the lesser power will always have to move labs or projects or universities?

Both Hunt’s and Huang’s remarks indicate the reality of what many lab heads  feel about their female lab members. But Huang’s remarks, with her advice that will keep the good old boy system in place, is much more harmful. I hope she dedicates a column to heads of labs.

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So, what can one do, for oneself, and to change the culture so people can talk more openly about sexism and power and the sometimes abuse of human and always present sexual attraction?

Know who you are and what your boundaries are. Know the implications of breaking those boundaries, no matter what your position. To those in creative careers, even the concept of boundaries is anathema, but without universal self-awareness and openness, boundary-breaking ends up getting handled by policy and regulation. Human Resource (HR) representatives are the usual mediators. But don’t substitute mediation for being thoughtful and clear about your own actions.

If you are in theposition of the postdoc who wrote to Huang, go talk to your Human Resources rep. Abuse of power, as all abuse, thrives in secrecy. It could be that the particular chest-gazer has already generated complaints, and you will be validated, and won’t be questioning your sanity for being troubled by what everyone is telling you is a minor issue.

It is also good to get another opinion, see what another person’s reaction would be, and to find whether  HR and your institution will back you up.

Your goal, presumably, is to have a solid professional relationship with your advisor. HR can help guide you through a conversation that is direct, calm, and still non-confrontational.

(Of course, if there is blatant harassment and you have reason to worry that your position in that lab is in jeopardy, document even before you go to HR.)

Keeping silent about something that is wrong will sap your confidence in science as well as the rest of your personal life.

If you are the advisor, and a postdoc comes to you with a complaint, listen. Really listen. Avoid an emotional reaction- you might not even have known you did/do anything. Apologize. You might not be ready to apologize for something you don’t think you did, yet an apology with reservations is no apology at all: try something such as “I am shocked to hear that, and I will make sure I am always careful not to compromise our professional relationship.”

You, too, as a lab head, should go to HR and report on that conversation, and whether or not you feel it is justified.

Sexual attraction is part of life and lab, but you are abusing your position when you mix that with the power advantage you have.

As the person in power, you can simply not engage if one of your advisees crosses a boundary. Speak to HR for advice before a conversation.

And if you are the HR rep, or chairperson, or dean, who is handed the problem, face it as you would face a charge of racism. There are various cultural reasons why someone might be sensitized to even a look from a supervisor: there are certainly embedded cultural reasons why some folks will not believe it matters. Even small happenings deserve your input- and don’t let someone’s Nobel Prize get in the way of having a difficult conversation.

Update: A Buzzfeed article reported on a letter to Science and AAAS, written by Aradhna Tripoli and Jennifer Glass, and signed by 600 academics. The letter detailed 4 issues with Science: Huang’s column, above; a Science cover and its implied assumptions of HIV transmission among transgendered people, prostitutes, and people of color; ScienceCareer editor Jim Austin’s dismissive tweet about scientists upset about the Science cover, and an article by a scientist at the University of Toronto and his casual mention that he did well because his wife assumed domestic duties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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