#TimHunt said, "I've got a speck in my eye," so they poked him in it with a beam.— Thomas Basbøll (@ThomasBasboell) July 9, 2015
There are lots more where that came from, some probably less well-considered than others. (One I even decided to delete. Very rare for me.) Indeed, I was grateful to get a little push back from a blogger that goes by the name Wonklife Balance (which is a great name for a policy analyst interested in gender issues, by the way). Reading this post about the affair, I tweeted that I found it strange to see [what I take to be] the intended meaning of Sir Tim's remarks, which had been distorted throughout the incident, described as his saving grace. Not "his" saving grace, Wonklife Balance promptly corrected me, but "a saving grace of the incident", which I took to be inconsequential until I realized that Wonklife was keen not to give Sir Tim any credit whatsoever. I think that is really harsh, but there seems to be a mass of underlying anger out there, which underwrites such harshness. So instead of relying on Twitter, I penned a more detailed response, which I posted as a comment to Wonklife's blog.
Like I said on Twitter, I think you’re not giving Tim Hunt credit for actually stating the “open secret”. He was trying to do exactly the thing you are glad happened.
That is, it’s uncharitable of you to describe his intended meaning as “a saving grace of the incident”, when at this point it’s pretty clear that that meaning was distorted by his clumsy attempt at being humorous and the media’s complete lack of curiosity about what he might actually have meant. For example, you summarize his remarks as seriously arguing for sex-segregated labs, though this was obviously a “modest proposal” on his part.
You are construing the intended primary effect of (this small part of) his remarks, i.e., to be open about a particular difficulty that remains in the relations between men and women in the lab, as an unintended side-effect of what he said, mediated, I guess, by the noble work of the journalists who distorted his meaning (as “Victorian” and “misogynist”), and the administrators who turned it into an international incident by asking (his wife to ask) him to resign.
If you’re really interested in the difficulty of “combining work and family life”, I think you should approach Sir Tim’s remarks with greater interpretative charity, and in the spirit of reaching an understanding–in this case, across generations. After all, it seems plausible to think that when he was talking about “girls [in] the lab”, he was talking about how he in fact met his wife.
I’m all for engaging with his remarks, even to criticize him for what appears to be [a] somewhat sentimental attitude about women (not uncommon to men his age, and worthy of criticism when they express it). But to celebrate his ouster because his apology didn’t “cut it”, is simply not going to help us make progress on this issue.
It was also a tweet by Wonklife Balance that brought Janet Stemwedel's "counterfactual" analysis at Forbes to my attention. Obviously, it's true that Sir Tim could have done many things differently. But much of it would have been for his own good, not for the good of science, nor for the good of women in science. (Like Wonklife says, something very good came out of exactly what he did.) Strangely, however, with a few notable exceptions, Stemwedel traces all the agency (the what-someone-could-have-done-differently) in the situation back to Sir Tim.
It's tempting to point out that this gives the bulk of the agency in the situation to the man, but that would just be a playful jab from a mischievous fellow traveler to a rather earnest-sounding feminist. The real problem with this way of constructing the counterfactual is that, for the most part, as Stemwedel makes clear, what Sir Tim could have done differently at each stage is to have kept his mouth shut. Rather than asking his audience of women to consider a difficulty about (inexorably) mixed-gender labs that actually concerns him, he could have been less ambitious about his message, confining himself to saying something polite and possibly inspiring (because attempts by men to inspire women always go over pretty well, right?). He could have had "no comment" for the BBC. He could have declined to be interviewed sympathetically about his own distress by the Observer.
I was happy to see that Stemwedel put some of the blame at the doorstep of UCL, who, in my view, could certainly have not asked for his resignation (i.e., not "dis-honoured" a man they couldn't fire because they weren't paying him), and worked with him to give him an opportunity to moderate his remarks, while staunchly defending his right to make an ass of himself in public if he so desired. He doesn't seem to have any such desire, which is also apparently not noticed by his critics. But surely he has the right, right?
The idea that the journalists involved, however, could have worked a bit harder to ensure that this story had less personal ramifications for Sir Tim and deeper cultural implications for science doesn't really occur to Stemwedel. To my mind, this is a question of reporting. Connie St. Louis, who broke the story, in collaboration with Ivan Oransky and Deborah Blum, could have sought out Sir Tim for comment immediately, making it very clear how they were spinning to story.* They could have sought to corroborate their suspicion that he's a Victorian-style misogynist, contacting his past students and colleagues. If they had done so, they would have discovered (it now seems clear) that he's a nice and gentle man who does his best to make sure that women, no matter how endearing he sometimes finds them, are comfortable in his presence and gain access to the career paths they deserve. St. Louis could then have written up a nuanced piece and published it in a more stable medium.
The story would have been much more complicated, much more nuanced, and much more interesting. It could have been about the slow and necessary process by which well-meaning people change their often deeply ingrained attitudes about each other. Sir Tim's attitudes about women are probably grounded in his experiences of working in male dominated labs in 1970s (when he was in his thirties). Mine are grounded in working in a much more mixed-gender environment in the social sciences around the turn of the millennium, albeit one where 50ish males certainly dominated. My son, who is 11, will develop his mature attitudes about women in about twenty years, under very different conditions. I'm sure his views will be more progressive than mine, as mine are no doubt more progressive than Sir Tim's. [Our views are also constantly evolving, course. I'm not stuck in the year 2000, nor is Sir Tim stuck in 1975.] All three of us, however, have, and will always have, "trouble with girls". What was it Leonard Cohen said? "The doctors are working day and night, but they'll never ever find a cure for love."
I wish Sir Tim and his quinces all the best in his retirement. I think it is a travesty what they have done to him. And I don't think science will be any better because of it. But I do believe women will have an increasingly better experience in science anyway, and, like Sir Tim, I wish them all the best. We need our best minds working on the problems of science. About half of the best minds are those of women.
[*Update: Apparently Deborah Blum did talk to him afterwards, but only to assure herself that he meant what he said. A brief interview at that time would have been an excellent way to make this story less scandalous and more effective. It appears that the BBC thing blindsided him a bit, so I doubt Blum was very direct about how outrageous she thought his comments were. If she had, and done so as a journalist, I imagine he would have begun to walk the joke back already at that point.]