Fionola Meredith: The shaming of Nobel laureate Tim Hunt is no feminist triumph

‘Something had to give, a sacrifice must be made, ideally the professor’s head on a platter’

How should we punish old men who make sexist jokes? Judging by the case of Tim Hunt, very severely indeed. No mercy shall be shown.

The 72-year-old British biochemist is a Nobel laureate, an international authority on the control of cell division, which is vital to cancer research. He was also, until very recently, a senior scientific adviser at University College London, and a member of the science committee of the European Research Council. But it took only a few foolish words – his own, admittedly — to bring his long, ground-breaking career to a painfully abrupt end.

Hunt's life fell apart at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, where he'd been asked to speak about women in science. He stood up and said: "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry." He then compounded his mistake by calling for laboratories to be sexually segregated.

Arrant nonsense, of course, not to mention silly, undignified and offensive. Hunt later apologised, admitting that he’d been flustered and nervous, and was trying to be funny.


But it was too late. The outraged shrieking had already begun. His remarks were not only "shocking and bewildering", they were "painful", "injurious" and "harmful" to women. As is the way with these mob-fuelled furores, the din rapidly became unbearable. Something had to give, a sacrifice must be made, ideally the professor's head on a platter. Instead, University College London did the next best thing and announced Hunt's resignation, piously citing its "commitment to gender equality", and both the European Research Council and the Royal Society effectively ditched him too, for good measure.

Job done. Revenge taken. Dinosaur dispatched. But what has actually been gained by this very public shaming? A source of great learning has been forcibly silenced, his reputation trashed, and all because he made a few stupid, misguided remarks. That's a blow to the advancement of knowledge, not a victory for equality. What's more, his departure will do nothing to boost the prospects of female scientists, who are badly under-represented, especially in the higher echelons of academia, and face barriers far more formidable than anything Hunt had to say. In any case, perhaps he's not quite the wholly unreconstructed sexist that he seems. According to Hunt's colleague Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge, he has "Worked tirelessly in support of young scientists of both genders". The physiologist Dame Nancy Rothwell said, "Many will testify to Tim's great support and encouragement ... he has trained and mentored some outstanding female scientists."

I don’t believe for a moment that Hunt’s remarks were “harmful” or “injurious” to women, or desperately off-putting to girls considering Stem (non-medical science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers. Anyone who believes that must have a depressingly low expectation of female pluck, intelligence, determination and resilience.

If you can really be derailed by a lame jibe from a socially-inept septuagenarian, then it’s not likely you’ll get very far in life, whatever your chosen pathway. Indeed, a reaction like that would bring you uncomfortably close to crying in response to criticism – the very thing that Hunt was pilloried for joking about. Such are the ironies of modern feminism.

Quite clearly, the best thing to do was laugh at Hunt, and plenty of women scientists did just that. For a while, social media was full of mocking images of white-coated neurologists, archaeologists and engineers under the hashtag “distractingly sexy”. Some of them were pretty funny. If only the rout could have stopped there.

I am a feminist – I don’t need the T-shirt, thanks, I’ve got the PhD – but I do not want to be part of an intolerant feminist movement that seeks to punish, silence and repress its declared enemies, grinding them underfoot. I don’t want to shame people for their mistakes and delight in their misfortune. And I despair at the cowardice of the institutions who, mindful of their public image, and desperate to be seen as upholders of the “liberal” moral consensus, are so willing to comply with this vicious, censorious agenda.

Offence won’t kill you. It’s time to call off the hunt.