The largest group of women I knew in graduate school were biology researchers. Reading this article made me worry about them. While I was isolated as the only woman in my engineering program at the time, I just assumed that since there were so many of them, that biology was a better field for women. I hope they have found mentors and successes in their careers.
LONDON — A Nobel laureate has resigned as honorary professor at University College London after saying that female scientists should be segregated from male colleagues because women cry when criticized and are a romantic distraction in the laboratory.
The comments by Tim Hunt, 72, a biochemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for groundbreaking work on cell division, unleashed a torrent of fury and added fuel to a global cultural debate about gender bias and discrimination against women in science.
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Mr. Hunt told an audience on Monday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “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.”
Within minutes, the comments, which were greeted with stony silence and no little anger at the conference, spurred a global backlash. The remarks gained wide attention after they were first noted on Twitter by Connie St Louis, the director of the science journalism program at City University London.
She wrote, “Really, does this Nobel laureate think we are still in Victorian times?”
Women and men from science and from other fields were quick to join her in denouncing Mr. Hunt.
Prof. Sophie Scott of University College London, who researches the neuroscience of voices, speech and laughter, wrote on Twitter, “I am in the office, but I can’t do my science work as I saw a photograph of Tim Hunt and now I’m in love, dammit.”
Kate Devlin, a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, added in a Twitter post of her own, “Dear department: please note I will be unable to chair the 10am meeting this morning because I am too busy swooning and crying.”
Robert McNees, a theoretical physicist in Chicago, was more blunt in his Twitter post: “The 2015 Nobel Prize in being a clueless, sexist jerk goes to Tim Hunt.Probably not his last.”
Other women responded to the comments by posting photographs of themselves working as scientists, some in playful poses, with the hashtag #distractinglysexy.
Sarah Durant, who identifies herself on Twitter as a wildlife biologist and conservationist, posted the following photograph to her account: Nothing like a sample tube full of cheetah poop to make you #distractinglysexy
Following the backlash, Mr. Hunt, who acknowledged a reputation as a chauvinist at the conference, issued what some on social media called a “nonapology apology.” He told BBC Radio that he was “really, really sorry” for causing any offense, even as he stood by some of what he had said.
He said the comments were meant to be ironic and lighthearted but had been “interpreted deadly seriously by my audience.”
“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” he told the BBC. “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.”
He elaborated on his comments that women are prone to cry when confronted with criticism.
“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,” he said. “Science is about nothing but getting at the truth, and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.”
University College London said in a statement that Mr. Hunt, who was knighted in 2006, had resigned his post in the faculty of life sciences on Wednesday. “U.C.L. was the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men, and the university believes that this outcome is compatible with our commitment to gender equality,” it said.
The Royal Society, where Mr. Hunt is a fellow, also sought to distance itself from the comments as some critics called for him to be removed from its rolls. Others commended Mr. Hunt for his honesty, however badly received, and suggested that perhaps his sense of humor had gone awry.
Mr. Hunt’s comments reflected the larger debate about the challenges facing women in science, with research suggesting that they must struggle with widespread sexism and gender bias. Referring to Mr. Hunt’s remarks, an article in the newspaper The Independent in Britain noted, “With lab rats like him, is it any wonder there’s a shortage of women in science?”
A Yale study published in 2012 showed that science professors at American universities widely regarded female undergraduates as less competent than male students with the same skills and accomplishments.
The result, the report found, was that professors were less prone to mentor female students, or to offer them a job. Presented with two imaginary applicants with identical accomplishments and qualifications, they were more likely to choose the man, and if the woman was chosen, she was offered a salary that, on average, was $4,000 lower than that offered to her male counterpart.
The study concluded that rather than being the product of willful discrimination, the bias was probably an outgrowth of subconscious cultural influences.
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Mr. Hunt is not the first high-profile figure to face criticism over comments about women in science. In 2006, Lawrence H. Summers resigned as president of Harvard University following a difficult tenure and some poorly received remarks, including his suggestion in a speech that “intrinsic aptitude” could explain the relative dearth of women excelling in science and mathematics.
Other Nobel winners have faced a backlash for ill-judged comments about women, including the novelist V. S. Naipaul, who said in 2011 that he regarded female writers as inferior.
“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not,” he was quoted as saying by The Guardian newspaper, adding that he thought the work was “unequal to me.”
By DAN BILEFSKYJUNE 11, 2015