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'Is our fight for equality descending into a witch-hunt?'

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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's new column answering your questions on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. Send your dilemmas to stories@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand. 

This week's question:

'I feel like this whole Tim Hunt debacle has got completely out of hand. Has it really become a witch-hunt - or does anything go in the fight for gender equality?'

Amy Everett

Feminist Amy Everett says:

The past week has seen Twitter overtaken by female scientists. Women in boiler suits, in labs, on their hands and knees in the dirt. They’re posting brilliant pictures of themselves going about their jobs with the hashtag #DistractinglySexy, in response to (self-proclaimed) chauvinistic comments made by Nobel laureate Professor Sir Tim Hunt.

A man who has done invaluable work on the division of cells, furthering our understanding of cancer. A man who has travelled the world promoting scientific discovery and study. A 72-year old who worked in unpaid research after retiring. A man who has just been fired, and whose name now means ‘sexist’, not ‘scientist’. 

For me, Tim Hunt’s story highlights feminism’s very worst misperceptions. Among the light-hearted photos and valid, strong opinion surrounding the issue, I see a mess of misplaced energy and faux #outrage. Under ‘feminism’s’ wing, the baying (Twitter) mob rushed to vilify this ‘rich old white man’ after he made a cluster of ill-advised comments at a conference in Korea - not question the culture that might have led to them in the first place. For the record, Hunt 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’.

Outdated. Unfunny. Disrespectful. Irrelevant. Subjective. His statement was all these things and then some - but the last one is key.

An off-the-cuff opinion has left him pilloried, hated and threatened. Despite a vehement apology, then a supportive statement from his wife (indeed, a woman. Who he fell in love with, and who fell in love with him, in the lab. Which I can only presume caused trouble, seeing as he was married at the time), Hunt remains outcast. UCL and the Royal Society’s best ‘practical’ solution was to throw him out completely.


One of the many #distractinglysexy tweets fired out in response to Tim Hunt's comments


My problem with this is twofold. Firstly, there’s no word on what will be done to change the circumstances that lead to such attitudes (this year, just two out of 44 new Fellows elected to the Royal Society were female) and secondly, I’ve just spent four paragraphs writing about one man’s rise and fall, when I should have been using the story to celebrate the incredible things women have done and continue to do in science. Marie Curie. Ada Lovelace. Marie M. Daly. Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Jane Goodall. Look them up. Show the women in your life, be inspired.

It is bloody boring to be the person who always points out sexism, but casual misogyny of this ilk must be confronted to be stamped out - and crucially, it must be done in the right way. 

I don’t think reducing men to tearful apologies (remember celebrated Rosetta mission scientist Matt Taylor and his naked lady shirt? See, men cry too) or hurriedly plunging them into obscurity is a triumph - for female scientists or feminism. 

This spirited culture of witch-hunting needs to end, not least because the term evokes images of shrieking, hysterical masses - exactly what true feminists are not. 

Instead, we must examine the problem empirically, as a scientist would, by determining the cause of the problem and seeking to rectify it in the long-term. 

Yes, let's hold him publicly accountable for downplaying women in their field (and I think we can all agree that's happened) but not to the degree where vitriol obscures the original point.

If sexism is a bleeding wound, Tim Hunt’s comments and those of others can be likened to infection - quick to spring up and spread, but treatable with a practical, rather than reactionary, approach.

If we put less time into vilifying individuals and more energy into finding a lasting cure - such as encouraging more and more girls to pursue science - we might just stop attitudes like this spreading. 

What do you think? Do you agree with Amy that we need to concentrate on the bigger picture? Or does Prof. Tim Hunt deserve everything he got? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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