"Georgie Porgie, Puddin' and Pie, Kissed the girls and made them cry........"
A harmless nursery rhyme recited to young children... or is it? Not if you look at the end result: Georgie Porgie made the girls cry!
Yesterday the self-proclaimed chauvinist and Nobel Laureate, Sir Tim Hunt, told a room full of journalists that having 'girls' in the lab was troublesome. Why so? Because he can't stop himself falling in love with them (and vice versa if Sir Hunt is to be believed). Doesn't seem such a bad thing....love makes the world go around, doesn't it? Unfortunately not, as the problem for Sir Hunt is that once all the falling in love has happened, the 'girls' cry 'when you criticise them'.
Now, the following may seem a semantic argument to make, but I've never been criticised, or criticised another colleague in my working life. That's not to say that I am a faultless scientist, as I have had my work criticised and I have criticised others' work, and in some cases their working practices, but never a personal criticism given or received. I also do not belittle and patronise my adult colleagues by referring to them as 'girls' or 'boys'. Perhaps this is why I have never cried, or made someone else cry at work. Sir Hunt may therefore want to consider bringing less emotion and personal feelings or attacks into the work place.
Georgie Porgie and other fuddy-duddys aside, this example highlights a much bigger issue, and comes in the same week that Science advises a junior female researcher to put up with her male supervisor ogling her breasts.
What happens when overt examples of sexism occur in the workplace?
In the scientific world, recent examples would suggest that it is entirely excusable, where recipients are advised to put up with it. Or where caught with their proverbial trouser down, the protagonist makes a public apology, but manages to phrase it such that it is not in any way apologetic, where the tired old "sorry if what I said caused offense" is wheeled out.
So, we have a working environment where women earn less than men, where women are awarded proportionally fewer grants than men, where women are promoted less frequently than men and have fewer papers accepted for publication in the top ranking journals than men. Add to this the apparent acceptance of sexism, and it's a wonder any females stay in the field at all... and yet some of us do stay. Why? Because we are passionate scientists who will not be bullied. We follow the trailblazers who succeeded in more extreme environments than we experience today, and who we should thank for breaking down those initial barriers to women working in science.
And it is with sincere hope that we should look to the future, as until at institutional levels sexism is addressed in any serious way, social media is bridging the gap... just check out how #TimHunt is trending on Twitter! It gives a very clear message to those who share Sir Hunt's views that their opinions are very wrong, are not shared by the majority of scientists and have no place in today's society.
Dr Ruth Massey is from the University of Bath's Department of Biology & Biochemistry