Distractions in the lab – and elsewhere in academia

Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979) was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Physics at Cambridge.
Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979) was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Physics at Cambridge.

The comments made by the famous scientist and Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt at a recent conference in Korea show that sexism is alive and kicking in academia and elsewhere. Apparently, “three things happen when (women) are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” Wow!

As several people have pointed out, Hunt is married to fellow scientist Mary Collins. I don’t know whether they met in the lab or not (I’m sure the media will find out soon), but their mutual love for science clearly had something to do with it. So surely that’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless there are problems Hunt hasn’t told us about yet. However, there are many scholars of both genders who just work alongside each other in a team without any sparks flying that hinder their work. It’s just like the real world. So I don’t quite get what the problem is.

As for women crying at work, there’s a simple solution: don’t treat us like s*** and it ain’t gonna happen. Nobody cries for no reason at all. If you find a woman (or indeed a man) crying at work, something is seriously wrong. Either she has been dumped with so much to do (women are the donkeys at work and the safe pair of hands) that she is close to breakdown, or she feels powerless because someone offended or bullied her. If she was feeling happy and appreciated she would not cry. It’s as easy as that.

At my own university, the fabulous Julie Scanlon has established a gender group in the Department of Humanities for female staff to discuss any issues they feel need to be addressed. These range from gender-specific communication to more serious issues, such as the lack of women in senior positions and the politics of promotions more widely. It is hard to change a culture, but the awareness for gender issues has certainly increased as a result. The group has got the women talking to each other about issues many thought were specific to their own situation, and it has signalled to the men that we are not to be messed with as we have our own support network.

‘Major’ incidences are rare, but it’s the little day-to-day issues that make women’s lives difficult. It starts with what to wear for work in the morning and ends with slightly off-colour jokes down the pub after the staff seminar.

I’ve never been a power dresser and don’t particularly like suits or other typical work clothes, such as smart trousers and shirts. As there is not an official dress code at uni (yet), I like to wear girly dresses or jeans. Alas, I’ve been told on several occasions that my skirts are too short (mainly by women) or that I dress like a student, which might undermine my authority. In fairness, I try to look more like a grown-up when I teach, but I can’t see what my wardrobe has to do with my credibility as an academic. My IQ won’t shoot up by 50 points if I wear a smart blouse, and people who have time to comment on my outfits clearly have too much time on their hands and should have their workload reviewed.

Off-colour jokes are different, because our own sensitivity alone is the judge on whether or not we find them offensive. Often we might find ourselves chuckling along because we don’t want to look ‘uptight’ (their judgement) or humourless (a serious insult, especially if you’re a German living in the UK), only to feel sick about it later.

But there are also many other things I addressed in a previous post about stress at work, such as the fact that women are often given more pastoral tasks, which take up more time as they involve real people rather than just paperwork. When organising a conference we might also find ourselves in charge of looking after the catering, or, while standing at the photocopier, a passing visitor might mistake us for the secretary (beware the smart blouse!).

I could go on and on about being a woman in academia, or indeed a woman in any working environment that is commonly dominated by men, but I guess you get the drift. As for Sir Tim Hunt, his faux pas just reminded me what a wonderful observer of human nature the writer Ian McEwan is. Tim Hunt reminds me just a tiny little bit of Michael Beard, the protagonist of Solar. Life imitating art, or what?



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

1 comment

  1. An interesting post,

    I think things are improving gradually. I am old enough to remember back in the 1980s an old professor giving me his opinion that he didn’t like women lecturers because they had lower salary expectations and thus devalued the profession. Such an attitude would be VERY out of place now.

    The Science Geek

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