Hunt, Taylor and Gayle. No, not a firm of solicitors, though presumably if they were, they would specialise in defending men against claims of sex discrimination in the work place. Here’s who they were and what they did, in case you’ve forgotten.
Tim Hunt was a Nobel prize-winning scientist in his seventies, who said that if you work with women in the lab, any of three things happen: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and if you criticise them, they cry. He was fired.
Matt Taylor was the space scientist who was involved in the project to land Philae on Comet 67P and who appeared on TV wearing a loud shirt which appeared to feature scantily clad women. After a twitterstorm, he felt compelled to make a tearful apology explaining that he didn’t mean to offend anyone.
Chris Gayle is the West Indies cricketer who preferred to ‘hit on’ a female TV journalist rather than answer her questions sensibly. He was fined £4,900 by his club.
These are all men who got things wrong. The first two have spent so much time at their studies that they are doubtless out of touch with contemporary sexual politics, while the third is, not to put too fine a point on it, a horny asshole.
No one is suggesting that any of them committed a crime. That is not to say that they are innocent of blame. We often blame people for doing things which are wrong without being against any specific rule. Jimmy Carr’s dodgy tax scheme, for example, or Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s telephone prank. Even women are sometimes found to be at fault. There’s Margaret Thatcher’s handling of the Falklands crisis, for a start.
My question is whether the reactions to their transgressions are proportionate. Gayle behaved like a jerk, and it cost him £4,900, doubtless a small sum to him – apparently it was a fifth of his fee for the match – but there were suggestions that he be suspended from Cricket altogether. The chairman of his club, who imposed the fine said that this was a workplace, and his behaviour ‘bordered on harassment.’ That’s a little cute. It may have been his workplace, and it may have been hers, but they didn’t have the same employer, and he wasn’t in a position of authority over her. Was it actually harassment? From one perspective, it may have been embarrassing and demeaning to her; from another, her professionalism and dignity in response to his idiocy were a triumph. If this took place in the same workplace, and even if he were her boss, would it count as harassment? Would it come to a tribunal? A one-off incident like this can count as harassment provided it is sufficiently offensive, but given that he said she had nice eyes and asked her to go for a drink with him, it is unlikely to qualify. Any other employer who docked someone 20% in similar circumstances would be likely to find themselves in the Employment Tribunal for unlawful deduction from wages, in short order.
Now, it will be said that he is speaking publicly, that he is a role model for young people, and that he has a special duty to behave himself when he is in the public eye. That is as may be, but sportsmen are not chosen for their tact, their diplomacy or the subtlety of their perception, they are chosen for their sporting prowess and nothing else. Dame Kelly Holmes and David Beckham may be excellent ambassadors for sport, but it is a mistake to expect men whose lives are driven by testosterone not to behave like orcs from time to time. The proportionate response to Gayle’s oafish behaviour is simply not to interview him any more.
Another person who completely ignored a sensible question for a female interviewer and instead said something inappropriate, embarrassing but important to him was Matt Taylor, making an emotional apology for his insensitivity in wearing his shirt on a live TV broadcast about his part in the historic Philae mission.
Here’s a picture of him wearing the shirt:
Unless you’re offended by the covers of – well, most women’s magazines, actually, never mind the lads’ mags – there’s not a lot to be appalled by in the pictures themselves. (There’s a lot to be appalled by in the fact that it’s a shirt.) It’s about as shockingly provocative a depiction of women as Lara Croft (discuss….?). The criticism he received, though, was instead directed at the effect that this would supposedly have on women wishing to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines. Girls will look at him, goes the argument, and say ‘Oh Christ, if I want to become a rocket scientist, I’m going to have to put up with Neanderthals like that. Stuff it, I’ll stick with Jane Eyre.’
I wonder if there is a single STEM-interested girl on the planet who was even looking at his goddamn shirt. They’d have been wanting him to answer the interviewer’s question about what data Philae was likely to be able to collect, and couldn’t have been less interested in his apologising because he’d upset a lot of Guardian readers from the Gender Studies department.
But apparently, once those girls get into science, they are going to be falling in love with their professors anyway, and crying if he criticises their lab work. Now, I very much doubt that Professor Hunt was basing this on a statistical analysis of all female scientists – it would have been a much more interesting science story if such an analysis existed (‘What, really? The majority of female scientists fall in love with their supervisors, vice versa, and they all cry when criticised? Amazing! I wonder why?’) – but was basing it on his own anecdotal experience.
Here is exactly what he said: ‘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.’ Given that he in fact fell in love with his own wife under such circumstances, one only needs a few of his research assistants to have blubbed if their centrifuges didn’t spin right and what he has said is plainly true, and his only mistake is to have repeated it.
For these 39 words, made at an after dinner speech (the definition of anecdotal, I’d have thought) at a conference in Seoul, a Nobel prize-winner lost his job. UCL said he had to resign or he would be sacked. The Royal Society also ‘let’ him resign from a post on the biological sciences awards committee. Their loss. Everyone’s loss. And for what? Are we going to wheel out the ‘ambassador’ line again, or acknowledge that his main virtue was in discovering, and helping to discover extraordinary things about the natural world, for the benefit of all humanity, and that tact and diplomacy are ‘nice-to-haves’?
In fact, the damage was done in the first nine words. I doubt that he could have followed that sentence with anything uncontroversial. The phones were out and the fingers poising above the ‘tweet’ button before he went any further. ‘Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. They are so brilliant as scientists that they may make me wonder if I can even compete any more.’ #patronisingasshole would be trending in seconds.
What these all have in common, apart from the shocking disproportionality of the response, and the fact that they are driven by social media outrage and misplaced political correctness is that the outrage is always on behalf of the supposedly wounded party. There were no STEM girls complaining about the shirt. Gayle’s interviewer retained her poise and made no fuss. The girls Tim Hunt ‘had trouble with’ probably just included his wife.
I accept that public utterances can cause damage beyond those individuals they are supposed to offend, but if we can’t keep a sense of proportion then we’re going to find ourselves bit parts in The Crucible.