How a little humour could have saved the professor from himself

Kate Fox on how Professor Tim Hunt's unfortunate lapse into sexism could have been so different

Johnny Green/PA Wire Sir Tim Hunt
Sir Tim Hunt

I am fairly sure that Professor Tim Hunt would never employ a humour consultant. Let alone a female humour consultant. But in case he ever does, I unselfishly offer myself for the job.

He could pace up and down a stuffy university seminar room and I’d shout out suggestions, video him and secretly wish he was someone else – much like I’d imagine Miliband’s aides did while prepping him for his speeches and telly appearances.

After his comments on women in laboratories caused outrage at a Korean conference, the Nobel Laureate and biochemist has now resigned from his position as Professor at University College London, and they have said they’re glad because his comments were incompatible with their commitment to gender equality.

They were the first university to admit male and female students on an equal basis. That was back in 1878 though, perhaps further proving that equality is not as long achieved as we might hope, their senior common room was still men-only until 1969.

Hunt’s offending comments were; “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. 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.”

He went on to suggest that labs should be segregated. The audience of female scientists and science journalists was unimpressed, one of them Tweeted what he’d said and the furore began.

So, to the humour consultancy. What would I have said? I’d have pointed out that he needed to approach the subject in a self-deprecating way which would make him look like a nerdy, bumbling science geek (I suspect this wouldn’t be a stretch) while at the same time asserting that more women in science is an essential and necessary goal that is only obstructed by the old-fashioned views and insecurities of nerdy, bumbling science professors like him.

With properly effective use of joking, rather than the sort that goes horribly wrong and looks like an excuse for being a twit, he could thus have managed to: 1) Get the audience on side. They obviously do not want to hear anything against women in science. 2) Present himself as endearingly self deprecating and unlucky in love, thus possibly managing to secure himself some phone numbers from any smitten science-women, 3) Still have his cake and eat it by effectively saying what he believed about women being a distraction in the lab but making it look like his own failing, rather than a general problem with women in the field and 4) Get revenge on whatever white-coated woman had spurned him after they’d found love while their eyes met across a cloudy magnifying glass.

It could have been as simple as: “We all know we need more women in science. Though they’ve always struggled with some elements of chemistry. With me I mean.” He still comes authentically across as a bit of a sexist twit and gets to insult women in science but probably keeps his job.

In these situations it’s not the joking that’s the problem – it’s how cleverly you do it.

Much more seriously, when enough middle-aged sexists work in institutions, they have the power to discount the needs of women in very concrete ways. I heard Umme Islam, director of Newcastle’s Angelou Centre, talk at the People’s Assembly last year about the terrible impact of austerity on the most vulnerable women in the North East.

Now she’s spoken out about the effects that proposed closure of North Shields’ immigration reporting centre on Norfolk Street would have on the vulnerable and destitute women who have to sign in there every week and would now somehow have to travel to Teesside to report in.

This kind of everyday erosion of the rights of women really is no joking matter.

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