Sunday, June 14, 2015

L'Affaire Tim Hunt

Whoa!!!  I don't usually blog about what everyone else is Twittering and writing about, but this one got to me.  I'd seen a headline about "distractedly sexy" on my NPR homepage, but didn't bother to check it out.  When I was perusing The Guardian today, I found out it was about Sir Tim Hunt and his inappropriate joke.  

Here's a quick recap.  This brief article lists links to three other articles which have examples of the tweets.  But the one they give has my favorite; the one picturing Madame Curie.

Ok, so his "joke", remark or whatever was stupid, sexist, and inappropriate.  And pushback by tweets is ok.  But should he lose his job?  Sir Tim and his wife speak out to The Guardian.  I was particularly struck by the way the University almost heralded his departure after saying it would be "low key."

Now anyone who knows me or has read this blog knows I despise sexism, racism and all.  But I have to side with Sir Tim on this.  Haven't we all said something stupid or inappropriate at some point?  I don't think that should necessarily be cause to lose one's job.  There's also been another debate about should a person lose a job because of some social media post - done on their own time from home.  So do we also think that's ok?  Or what if Sir Tim had expressed some dissenting view critical of the UK government - or of his university?  Where does the slope end?

Universities in particular should be places of free interchange of knowledge and ideas.  Someone made the analogy of education being a messy bazaar.  We don't need to lose that.  I'm a STEM'er - a retired math professor.  I very well remember reading the research of a team of math researchers whose theme was that females were inherently not as good at math as males.  Certainly that made my blood boil, but I wouldn't call for their resignations.

I'd also like to share some of my experience.  My math professors were really quite supportive, and most of them were white males.  And the math students I had classes with generally were just fine.  I also remember being a lab partner with a fellow as a psych student (before I got into math) and we did just fine together.  And as a professor and member of a community college math department, our department was really quite diverse as far as gender and race. So I don't know if my experience was in any way typical, but I made out well.  I do remember interacting with a top-flight female scientist and businesswoman.  One thing she told me about women in science was that she'd observed that the men do tend to push the women out.  What a shame that would be.  We need all sorts of good minds in STEM, both male and female.  Of course attracting students to STEM fields is another discussion entirely - and there are of course, quite some other factors to be considered besides gender and sexism (i. e., does our society really value education the way it should and does it really value scientific careers?)

I'm sorry that Sir Tim feels that he was "finished."  I hope that he will find some way to keep contributing to the STEM community (and the larger community as well) to which he has already contributed so much.  What's that old saying about the door and the window?

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