Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

Commentary: Sexism In Science Is No Funny Joke

Jul 27, 2015

A controversy has erupted over an attempted joke by a Nobel prize winning scientist at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists held in South Korea last June. It turns out that Science, like the rest of society, has a problem of sexism. In this segment of The Moral Is, Fresno State biology professor Dr. Madhusudan Katti confronts the pervasive everyday sexism in science and challenges the institutions of science to address the structural barriers and cultural climate that keep women out of science.

Did you hear the one about the Nobel Laureate who, when invited to a lunch honoring women in science, casually told a roomful of journalists and scientists that girls need to be segregated in science labs because they either fall in love with you, you fall in love with them, or if you criticize them, they cry? Funnily enough, his audience thought that was no funny joke. But when some of the journalists reported it, guess who was the one who went home crying?

Madhusudan Katti
Credit Madhusudan Katti

  While that attempted joke by the honored guest, Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt, fell flat on his audience, a large number of women scientists responded with hilariously sarcastic counterpunching jokes on Twitter. The comments and images posted with the hashtag #DistractinglySexy belied the image of crying girls.

Hunt, however, took offense and quit an honorary position at University College London. A vocal group of men, including some Nobel Laureates and Great Men of Science, cried foul about how Hunt’s “joke” was misconstrued and his career “destroyed”, even though he retains his primary emeritus professorship at the Crick Institute.

Instead of reflecting on why women continue to remain underrepresented in science, and using their influence to solve that problem, Hunt’s defenders dug deeper into their sexist trenches. And they riled up a vicious bunch of online trolls now abusing and harassing women for daring to speak up about sexism in science.

If this controversy doesn’t demonstrate that science has a sexism problem, what will?

An extensive survey of field scientists published by Dr. Kate Clancy and colleagues in 2014 found sexual harassment and assault, primarily directed at younger women, to be common enough in scientific field stations to constitute a hostile work environment. While sexual assault on campus has belatedly received some attention, especially in athletics, the problem remains much broader throughout academia.

Science suffers from too many institutional barriers that keep women out to laugh off such workplace hostility as a joke. If sexual assault drives some bright young minds out of science, the everyday sexism embodied in Hunt’s ill-conceived joke remains far more pervasive, as evident even on my own Fresno State campus.

Scientists often claim that science is a particularly privileged way of knowing about the world because of its insistence on material evidence to test every idea or hypothesis. Yet science as an institution has not found a way to address the mounting evidence of how many curious minds and diverse perspectives are being driven out of science due to prejudice. Instead, in the manner of old men getting eccentric with age, we have Nobel laureates joking about girls.

Science must start dismantling the institutional barriers and glass ceilings that keep too many people out. A necessary step in that direction would be to stop telling unfunny jokes at the expense of already marginalized and excluded groups.

Madhusudan Katti is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Fresno.

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.