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What to do with (ageing) sexists?

by on June 12, 2015

So, unless you’ve been under a rock this week, the chances are that you’ve heard the comments made by Sir Tim Hunt, at a conference in South Korea. They are reported here on the BBC website under the rubric of ‘the trouble with girls‘ as “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.”  You’ll probably have also heard that Hunt subsequently resigned his honorary post as Emeritus Professor at UCL and from his position on a Royal Society Committee. And I do hope you’ll have seen the rather splendid #DistractinglySexy hashtag on Twitter where female scientists have poked fun at the idea of women being a distraction to men in labs by posting photos of themselves – and famous female scientists of the past – in their lab settings. Indeed one of my key concerns with Hunt’s comments was his positioning of women as the problem.

While the many aspects of these comments and subsequent actions are played out in the media, this piece in The Guardian by Gaby Hinsliff, asks ‘Why sack ageing sexists? Send them to rehab instead’. I had noticed references to Hunt’s age (72) in earlier media coverage – including reader online comments – which centred around arguments that ‘at his age, what could you expect?’ versus ‘I know many people of his age who don’t hold those sexist views’. Hovering somewhere between, Hinsliff argues that Tim Hunt ‘isn’t too old to learn that his views of women are out of step with the modern world’ and suggests that he has fallen down a gap both generational and gendered, blaming his single-sex education in an earlier era for some of his attitudes. I must admit to veering towards the views of those that think that his age is no excuse; it seems just as likely that his status and field might have allowed him to carry on holding these views unchallenged over the decades.

She suggests that: ‘Ageing sexists whose personal prejudices interfere with their ability to do the job obviously have to be tackled. Getting to grips with the basic principles of equality should be as non-negotiable as – and frankly not much more complicated than – mastering the new office IT system, or keeping up with developments in your professional field.’  I agree – though for good measure I would extend this proposal to sexists of all ages.

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