Nobel laureate says shockingly sexist things about “girl” scientists, kind of apologizes

Nobel laureate Tim Hunt is under fire for recent comments he made about female scientists. Speaking in Seoul at the World Conference of Science Journalists at an event held in honor of women in science on June 9, Hunt said, “Let me tell you about the trouble with girls. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!”

Hunt won the 2001 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on cell duplication, and was reported to have told journalists at the conference that labs should be segregated by sex.

Hunt arguably made things worse in speaking to the BBC Radio 4’s Today program later:

I’m really sorry that I said what I said. It was a very stupid thing to do in presence of all those journalists. And what was intended was a sort of light-hearted, ironic comment … was apparently interpreted deadly seriously by my audience. But what I said was quite accurately reported.

It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them. If they break in to tears then you hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing except getting at the truth. And anything (that) gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.

I mean I’m really, really sorry that I caused any offense. That’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean … I just meant to be honest actually.

Hunt is married to Mary Collins, who is a former dean of the life sciences division at University College London (UCL) and is regarded as a champion of women in science.

Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at the UCL, told the BBC, “It was clear that he was trying to be funny, but people will interpret his comments as having a kernel of truth underneath. Some men from that generation do hold these attitudes and … women are not helped by that. As a Nobel Laureate, I know he is a human being but he does have some sort of responsibility as a role model and an ambassador of the profession.”

Updated June 10 at 3:56pm ET: Tim Hunt has stepped down from his post as an honorary professor with the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences. UCL notes in a statement that it was “the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men,” and says Hunt’s resignation “is compatible with our commitment to gender equality.”

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