What a fun household it must be for Mr and Mrs Hunt: Dr Collins, Sir Tim's wife, is a professor of immunology at UCL. She has an active research group of post-docs and PhD students, hundreds of publications and a plan to conquer HIV. She's worked at the institute of cancer research, Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Does Sir Tim Hunt think that she and her team sit around crying when experiments don't work? Has she fallen in love with her other male colleagues?
As Sir Tim Hunt is well aware, there are big difficulties in getting girls excited about science. Physics is one of the worst offenders - largely due to a tired, unimaginative school curriculum and because there aren't enough female role models. When I first started to write this post, it was akin to the thousands of others which have filled social medial over the last twenty four hours and resulted in a resignation - there aren't enough female role models because so many of us leave science, and so many of us leave science because of outdated opinions like this. But, I wonder if this attitude fails to identify the fundamental problem here: what Tim Hunt's comments really reveal is that he has a problem talking to and working with women. He hasn't said that we're bad at science or that our work isn't as valid as his - perhaps he just doesn't want his awkwardness to hold us back. This problem isn't unique to Sir Tim. There are lots of other male scientists who don't know how to interact with women (I've met plenty of them) - just like there are male lawyers, street cleaners, doctors, coffee makers, booksellers and chefs who don't know how to talk to their female counterparts. What Sir Tim's comments, and the resulting media storm, have failed to recognize is that gender inequality isn't unique to engineering institutes and science labs - we, as a society, continually fail to get these inter-gender relationships right, and it's holding all of us back.
I'm lucky enough to work at Imperial College London, which boasts a female President, Council Chair and Associate Provost. 14 departments have Athena Swan Awards to celebrate their good employment practice for women. We host an annual Athena Lecture series where outstanding female scientists present their work (next week the president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Professor Dame Ann Dowling, will talk about next-generation silent aircrafts). In the physics department our female professors, many of whom, like Hunt, are fellows of the Royal Society, are undertaking internationally renowned research- looking at the plasma environment around comet 67P/C-G (the Rosetta mission), designing materials for flexible solar cells, exploring quantum gravity, and making hyper-efficient super-cool magnetic fridges. These women run incredibly successful research groups, they chair conferences, edit scientific journals and sit on industrial and educational boards. They are regularly voted among the best lecturers for their undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. Sir Tim Hunt is a member of the advisory council for the Campaign of Science and Engineering and (according to his website) has a Vision for Science and Mathematics Education. Is his vision that we separate these scientists to prevent any unnecessary emotional stress? Should they be prevented from lecturing students in case one of them accidentally falls in love?
In my lab, I'm yet to fall in love with a colleague, and nor has one of my peers made me cry. Of course we get worked up: we question each other's data and we challenge each other's interpretations or we wouldn't ever find anything out. Postgraduate students simply aren't paid enough for it to be a career choice for the unenthusiastic or those without emotion - every single PhD student cares an awful lot about what they do or we'd all be working in the city. Imperial College London's international reputation means we interact not just with men and women from across the UK, but people from over 125 different countries - I work with chemists, physicists, materials and computer scientists every single day. Every person I've worked with has brought something different to the collaboration: an idea, a plan, a contact - and not one has thought of me as trouble.
Unless we can work out how to interact with people of other genders, we will continue to miss out on the full potential of what a truly diverse scientific community can achieve.
Professor Ann Dowling gives Imperial's annual Athena lecture on 17 June. Find out more here