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How Female Scientists Responded To Brutally Sexist Comments From A Nobel Laureate

Women face barriers in science that go beyond sexist comments. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Women face barriers in science that go beyond sexist comments. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Nobel laureate Tim Hunt resigned from his position as honorary professor at the University College London after receiving backlash for comments he made about women in science at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea.

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” the British biochemist said Monday. “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.”

Now, female scientists are taking to Twitter under the hashtag #distractinglysexy to highlight the tastelessness of his comments.

https://twitter.com/ameliacervera/status/608999424585527296

Although the Twitter hashtag has become a competition for the funniest caption, Hunt’s comments at the conference were met with anything but laughter. Hunt, who won the Nobel Prize in 2001, later apologized on BBC Radio 4, saying “I’m really sorry that I said what I said. It was a really stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists.”

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Comments such as these are not new to women in the sciences. Harvard University president Lawrence Summers infamously said in 2005 that a lack of intrinsic aptitude was an important reason why women less often occupied senior positions in science and engineering. Like Hunt, Summers later apologized.

These statements contribute to a field-wide problem that creates the “pipeline problem,” the system through which women in science experience barriers to career advancement and success. The pipeline problem refers to women leaving the science field at every stage — early education, higher education, hiring, and career success — until few are left. They experience inequalities in “hiring, earnings, funding, satisfaction, and patenting.”

The pipeline problem starts in school. Young women and men enroll in high school math and science classes in similar numbers, and many women begin their first year of undergraduate studies taking these classes as well, according to a 2014 study by the National Science Foundation. But university science departments fail to retain these women, and thus less women than men graduate with science degrees.

Some universities known for their science programs, like the California Institute of Technology, fail to enroll many women to begin with. Sixty-four percent of undergraduate students and almost three-quarters of graduate students at Caltech are male.

And although more women are enrolled in graduate programs in the United States, men more often have postdoctoral degrees in science, receive a higher number of research grants, more research and small business grant money.

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“Despite accounting for half of the college-educated workforce, in 2010 women constituted 37% of employed individuals with a highest degree in a [science and engineering] field,” the NSF study reported.

The wage gap isn’t too encouraging either. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields earned only $0.86 for every dollar earned by men.

Yet despite the wage gap, when asked what barriers women face in science, most won’t say it was the pipeline problem, their schooling or their wages. Anna Flynn, a young woman working in technology, told ThinkProgress the biggest barrier is the culmination of small, everyday experiences in the field. She said barriers arise when professors discourage female students from taking tough classes, when websites like codebabes.com are launched, and when men tell them they’re too attractive for their profession. It’s when a female scientist attends a conference with her scientist-husband, and is assumed to just be “tagging along.”

After sharing almost 10 stories of frustrated experiences in her field due to her gender, Flynn said, “That’s just a tiny, tiny slice of things that have happened to me personally. And I guarantee you every single woman has multiple stories like this.”

Rupali Srivastava is an intern with ThinkProgress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.