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Response to Tim Hunt: Why More Women Need to be in Science

By: , Posted on: June 11, 2015

When I read the comments that Nobel Prize winner and prominent scientist, Tim Hunt uttered, I realized that this is the perfect opportunity to continue to raise awareness about the need for women in science.

In working with some of the incredible women that have written knowledgeable publications about enhancing the diversity within the STEM workplace and raising the profile of women scientists, we have compiled their responses to Sir Richard Timothy ‘Tim’ Hunt’s words.

ofelia oliveroOfelia Olivero, Ph.D – author of Interdisciplinary Mentoring in Science

How can we leverage Tim Hunt’s story to make a real change possible? Is there any way this situation could be moved to the next level? Writing to counteract his words will be as ineffective as filling the pipeline with female researchers.

Let’s identify the problem first.

Is the problem the fact that Dr. Hunt spoke in a room full of journalists? Is the problem the fact that he spoke period? Is the problem the fact that he shared his thoughts? Is the problem the fact that his thoughts are shared by many others – males and females?

The problem is not that he spoke. The problem is the climate created by mentalities like his — the environment in which women try to develop as integral professionals.

The real problem is the last one. The issue here is that there are many Tim Hunts seated in searching committees, tenure committees, promotion committees, award committees, etc. Those that are nodding in silence when listening to him are the ones that are detrimental for the work force, the ones that systematically block careers, plant hurdles, and create obstacles to prevent the progress of women in science.

The problem is not that he spoke. The problem is the climate created by mentalities like his — the environment in which women try to develop as integral professionals. This environment is constantly providing hostility and questions.  Even if the pipeline is full of women, without a climate of acceptance, a genuine and embracing work place will not be possible. It is not only repudiating Tim Hunt’s words that will enable women to move forward, it is identifying the climate and trying to correct it that will start a new path.

rachelle hellerRachelle Heller, PhD – co-editor of Forward to Professorship in STEM

Yes, women have come a long way in STEM, but maybe it’s the men who have not. Tim Hunt’s comments are just one more coda in the story about intrinsic bias against women in STEM. What makes this story of more concern than usual is twofold: 1) he is a Nobel Prize winner and a person of stature in the science community and 2) he seems to think that by ‘owning’ his remarks that we can now excuse him, tolerate his words and move on.

Someone needs to remind Dr. Hunt that without women in STEM, there would be delays in knowing about  double helix research, delayed  information on radioactivity, delayed discoveries on human immunodeficiency virus to name just a very few! Without women in STEM, we would still be treating a lot of drug data only as it relates to men, cars and other vehicles would still have designs that do not accommodate women and science policy would be one-sided.

Thank you Dr. Hunt for your advancements in key regulates in the cell cycle, but to my mind you still have a lot to learn.

Prof Pamela McCauleyPamela McCauley Bush, PhD, CPE – author of Transforming Your STEM Career Through Leadership and Innovation

Statements of this nature should be immediately challenged, particularly when made by a person of Dr. Hunt’s stature. When a respected individual in the scientific community makes these types of comments, it leads to the perpetuation of stereotypes, marginalization of female scientists and can even negatively impact the significance of our contributions.

Furthermore, it is sexist “mindsets” such as these that lead many women in STEM to leave the field and even more sadly, this type of bias results in fewer young women pursuing STEM or research careers.

Metcalf_HeadshotHeather Metcalf, PhD, Director of Research and Analysis for the Association for Women in Science

Implicit Bias Remains Persistent in STEM Fields

At the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), we were disappointed learn about Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s remarks regarding men and women working together in scientific labs. Even with the best intentions, Mr. Hunt’s comments demonstrate the way people carry biases that influence their attitudes and behaviors.

AWIS is actively pursuing positive system transformation by researching where and how implicit bias impacts the STEM workforce. Since 2010, AWIS has partnered with eighteen STEM disciplinary societies to research patterns in awards allocations, engage in discussions of implicit bias in the selection process and pioneer processes aimed at fostering gender equity in awards. We found that women were consistently underrepresented among recipients of scholarly and research awards and overrepresented among recipients of teaching and service awards relative to their proportion among PhDs, full professors, and disciplinary society membership. Implicit biases based on social stereotypes influence the under-recognition of women for research and over-recognition for service, teaching and mentoring.

Incidents like the remarks made by Mr. Hunt only serve to remind us of the continuing mission of equity for women in science. It is essential to tap into America’s full talent pool for continued U.S. leadership in research and innovation and to ensure that all women in the STEM fields can achieve their full potential.

christine grantChristine Grant, PhD – co-editor of the 2nd edition of Success Strategies From Women in STEM

For every Tim Hunt, there are four other Tim Hunts that believe the same thing about women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. In addition, however, there are five other male advocates and allies that do not share his perspective (at least not to that extreme). They may even feel the exact opposite! Ok, so maybe it is not a 50/50 split. It may be 60/40 or even 80/20. One thing that is clear, the majority of STEM professionals are currently men, hence a paradigm shift in beliefs, perspectives and associated behavior musts be led (and even initiated) by our male colleagues.

While there is no dearth of women working on these issues (as evidenced by the multitude of cyberspace posts by women),  the most important action right now is for our male STEM colleagues to: (i) be empowered with information found in resources such as the AAUW report on Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing and (ii) to boldly speak up on this issue in partnership with the successful women STEM professionals (in both academia and industry). Finally, creating STEM environments totally free of unconscious (and in this case overt) bias is a lofty long term goal. In the short term, the STEM community could “settle for” a community of STEM practitioners who are actively and passionately advocating for civility, collegiality, and a healthy respect in areas in which demographic differences can spur diverse pathways of scientific discovery.

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