“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he said. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”
His comments, spread by a woman attending the conference, inspired an outpouring of criticism about his “sexism,” a particularly tender subject in the sciences, where there has been a lot said and written about the under-representation of women. In response, Hunt resigned from his honorary professorship at University College London and from a prestigious committee of London’s Royal Society.
But now there’s a backlash to the backlash, with some saying the problem isn’t with Hunt but with those who took offense and ultimately drove him out of his positions. It reflects more broadly increasing tension over shaming and blaming on social media and the willingness of people to say what’s on their minds.
“He is ignorant of the strides women have made in education and therefore he is not a good representative for an honorary professorship,” Joyce Hall wrote Thursday on Facebook. “It has nothing to do with political correctness; it has to do with being a great professor for both men and women. What women would want to work with him with his neanderthal thinking?”
“While I think the outcry is a bit much, he does deserve to be criticized,” Andrea Nicole Higgins commented. “Women aren’t in the lab to cry and love. This mentality is archaic, and in his own words, chauvinistic.
“Women are severely underrepresented in the scientific field. Labeling them as ‘cry babies’ does little to help their advancement.
“That being said, he chose to resign. No one forced him.”
Some women said their gender is stronger than Hunt’s remarks.
“Leave the man alone,” Angel O’Reilly wrote. “As a woman I do not care. I am made of sterner stuff than to be offended by his comments.”
Political correctness has just run amuck,” Bob Wilson commented. “[Political correctness] is the scourge of today’s society.”
Others made the point that Hunt should be criticized — even reprimanded — but not forced to resign from his positions.
“If he’s brilliant, he should be working,” Michelle Kilbourne wrote. “Just reprimand the hell out of him. Let someone else handle the assistants, male or female.”
“We’ve all made a mistake,” Neha Chandra wrote. “He was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, his work was superb. We can’t vilify him for one mistake.”
University College London said the unpaid position did not typically involve teaching or research but that Hunt’s resignation was “compatible with our commitment to gender equality.” And the Royal Society said his recent remarks “have no place in science.”
“I think it’s tragic that political correctness has become so toxic that it destroys the careers of brilliant individuals,” Gabriel Bartash wrote on Facebook. Evie Marlin concurred: “This is so sad to see that our overwhelming need to continue to support ‘political correctness’ has brought down many a man (AND WOMAN) by the slip of the tongue. Ridiculous that he should resign, absolutely ridiculous, just as, no doubt, some of the remarks here below are ‘snarky.'”
“It seems like it was a joke,” Marisa Hamm Malanowski commented. “Perhaps a poorly thought out joke, but just a joke.
“If there’s more to it than just that, it’s another thing, but I see no reason why a slightly sexist joke should ruin someone’s career.”
Hunt, for his part, made his case on BBC Radio:
I’m really sorry I said what I said. It was a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists. What was intended is a light-hearted ironic comment. Apparently it was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience.
It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth. Anything that gets in the way of that diminishes in my experience, the science.
I’m really, really sorry I caused any offense, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually.
He didn’t back down from his initial statement.
“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” he added. “It is true that people — I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field. I found that these emotional entanglements made life very difficult.”
But this was not an argument likely to be settled anytime soon.