They say good reputations take a life time to build and a second to destroy. Never has that been made clearer than in June of this year, when a British Nobel laureate was reported as having made openly and viciously sexist comments about female scientists.
A social media storm ensued, and although the facts and independent evidence have only come to light recently—including a partial recording of the event, that shows the tone and reception of Sir Tim’s speech with what seems insightful clarity—the damage done to him has not been undone.
You can judge the evidence about what actually happened for yourself. I am not going to tell you what to think. So I have nothing to add to the reporting work done by Louise Mensch or Jonathan Foreman, or the opinions given by others, for or against, like Prof David Colquhoun and Prof Athene Donald.
What I am more interested in is what was behind what happened. Was Connie St Louis seeking to advance the cause of women in science? I think she probably wanted to, however ham-fistedly it came out. In fairness to her, the fact that what she wrote was retweeted 600 times was probably not something she planned maliciously or made happen. I imagine she planned for what she said to stand out, but I would also argue that is as far as it is reasonable to assume it went. What she said was calculated to get attention, which it did.
Her writing and comments since the affair suggest that she thinks what she did was right, in fighting for her views to be heard. The question it leaves me with is whether the cause of women in science, as the political phrase has it, is any better off now than it was.
The point that the cause of women in science is aiming at is, as I understand it, a meritocracy. It is what I, as someone who has gone on record in The Guardian as being a feminist, also seek. Almost every scientist I have ever met feels the same. I cannot speak for St Louis, and would not dare, but I have never heard she or any other feminist say that they seek a situation where women dominate over men. So, a system based on intellectual merit it is, then.
There is a good intellectual case for a meritocracy, or at least as close as it is practically possible to get to one. A meritocracy means that intellect is well used, that good brains are not wasted and thus do not go untrained or unused—or, at least not for their trifling associations. A merit-based system means we can focus on progress and creative invention. On forging understanding in scientific research. On making things better.
The best bit is that on paper, this intellectual utopia is not that far off. Women of my age have all sorts of choices that my grandparents’ generation did not. Women can choose whether and when to have children, whom they want to marry, what they want to study at school and university. They have female role models at school, in important positions and in the media. There was a female prime minister from my birth to virtually when I entered puberty. Furthermore, the law now ensures that they have the same pay as men. The issue I have heard complained about in person now, and one that is inconsistent between European countries is the parental leave system. It’s hardly the same barrier as once it was.
I can feel the hackles of radical or militant (depending on your perspective) feminists rising at my pointing out the statutory equal pay between men and women. The existence of the law on this point is a fact though, even if it is argued that it does not happen in practice. And it is argued that it does not happen in practice, but only with one piece of evidence. A pay survey by the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
The response to this ONS survey is in itself a fascinating case-study of how some non-scientists respond to evidence, and how scientists do. This also has a resonance in how social media handled the Tim Hunt affair—but more of that later. First, scientists regard the ONS study as data, that may or may not constitute evidence of something. Others regard it as proof of a particular conclusion. Scientists avoid terminology like ‘proof’ because it is an absolute, something that does not really exist in science. The reality of a situation tends to be rather more nuanced than a yes or a no.
Second, to a scientist, it is not clear what the limits of the ONS study are. For example, it is not clear what account has been taken of the difference in pay between black employees and white. There are plenty of people who will argue vociferously that blacks are still routinely paid less than whites. It is part of the argument about the existence of institutional racism.
What about ethnicity? Polish immigrants are still white, but are they paid the same as British ones in jobs in the UK? It is doubtful. Certainly traditionally, some ethnicities have been at a disadvantage in Britain. Just ask an Irish person who lived in London in the 60s and 70s. And what about age? Is someone of 40 paid the same as someone of 60 who has the equivalent experience? That is again not clear, nor is it clear how it affects these figures. One last one, and the slipperiest of the lot, is personal relationships. A simple example is: person A wants to impress person B. Person B has a spouse, child or protégé who wants a job. Does person A factor that into the equation about whether to give person C the job? What about in considering , or remunerate them handsomely to make the point? In other words, nepotism.
These are important questions that need to be answered about the ONS study. However, the same evidence-based logic applies, or should apply, to handling of news stories. Did all those hundreds of retweeters of what Connie St Louis wrote, check the story? Did they read about Tim Hunt’s record on promoting women in science, or whether he had employed women and how they had done, and what they thought? It seems doubtful. What is more likely is that they retweeted it because it confirmed their convictions; it was what they wanted to believe (and why they won’t be retweeting about this article, except in white-hot rage).
However such questions about the ONS data and the retweeters, are only questions. They do not necessarily kill the data or the original wording stone dead. Something else does that. What kills the ONS data stone dead for the purposes of proving gender pay divide beyond reasonable doubt, is the lack of specific evidence. If there were a systematic pay gap between men and women it should be straightforward to prove. There would be case study after case study that showed it. Furthermore, there are a large group of people who would love to prove it, as it would confirm their convictions. As far as I am aware, there is no such proof. This just does not square with the notion that women are paid less than men. There was a time when there were paid less. Back in the bad old days of the 1970s, it was very clear that women were being paid less because they were women. There is clear evidence of that. But those times have passed. The world has moved on. The crisis as once it was is largely, if not completely, over.
The same is apparently true of Tim Hunt’s career. This is despite his record, and the support he has received consistently from his wife, a senior broadcaster and several of his former, female, students. The evidence has not been weighed up and a balanced decision made.
That is not to say that it has all been achieved and that we should not worry about being complacent. Gender should not be a more important criterion than intellect for filling an academic position. However, if meritocratic principles are applied, there is no reason to expect that we will become complacent on this point. We do not need to be frightened that it will all fall apart.
The current competition for grant money, jobs and studentships in science makes this unlikely, at least in the short term. I can speak from experience on this. Recently I was involved in the selection process for a PhD studentship. There were 47 applicants from around the world. There were a considerable number of factors involved in telling candidates apart—it would have been near impossible to make any coherent distinction based on gender, if we had wanted to. Needless to say, there was no question of choosing on the basis of gender, and doing so would have felt very wrong.
That is a feeling I have a lot. Perhaps that is my flaw—it simply does not occur to me to be sexist. I am an intellectual, so why would any other criterion for making such a decision enter my head? I am convinced that I am like that, others are too. I am sure I am not unique in taking the view that intellect is paramount.
Does Connie St Louis take the same view? I hope so, but the evidence does not really square with that conclusion. She argues constantly and in what is described as a rambling way that ‘Women have had enough!’ (A piece in The Guardian on 23rd June 2015). That is not really the same as ‘All should be treated equally and equitably, based on intellect’, it is more akin to a mob shouting ‘Action Action’.
Perhaps I am being naïve. Perhaps she does agree with me but has translated her words into a sort of politicalese, in order to accelerate affecting the change she desires. It would be understandable. Many people take their causes into the political arena to effect a change and need to adapt to that environment. The evidence for this being a good way to change intellectual things is not universal though. In other words, politics is a blunt instrument. It is good at wider things in which it has an interest, like the economy. It is not a way of making nuanced changes to culture and fashion.
The real danger is that the use of politics to solve social problems has been tried before and with disastrous consequences. French revolutionaries, after they had killed off their aristocracy, started guillotining each other. Anyone who did not expound the most vociferous revolutionary views was regarded as a danger and was put to death. Robespeirre is a good example. It was a panicky response in a tense atmosphere and has proved far from stable (France was on its fifth republic less than 200 years after the revolution, where Britain has had a continuous monarchy since the interregnum). No one is expecting the Tim Hunt affair to turn into state-sponsored death, but ostracising someone from the scientific establishment is about the closest thing.
I am not really sure when feminism stopped being a poltico-social movement and started becoming a party political one, but there is no doubt that it has. It is not a move that fills me with hope, when evidence is mishandled, misreported and when lies take over from the truth. It is not helping the cause, it is taking it away from the place moderate feminists seek to arrive at.
Sexism as once it was, is dead and buried—and good riddance. So what sort of sexism is there to fight against now? The evidence is that in science women were employed 2:1 over men for first-run-on-the-ladder lectureship positions. But no one is going dare to support that view, despite the evidence of sexism. It looks worryingly like a meritocracy is not the desired outcome after all, but something else. Something more short-termist and probably egotistical. Feminism is needs a careful rethink on where it is going if it is not to be accused of being a lot of silly, head strong complainants who are wailing jealously for the sake of doing so.
You must log in to post a comment.