The Context: at a science conference in South Korea earlier this year Sir Tim Hunt, a famous biochemist, told his audience about his “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 claimed he was joking but lots of people didn’t find it funny.
In case you’re struggling to see why his comments are sexist, offensive and crass let me summarise: calling women ‘girls’ is demeaning and disturbingly sexually predatory. Reducing all women to an overly emotional caricature is inciting and purposefully ignoring their brilliance as scientists. If you still don’t get it why not replace ‘girls’ with a different group, e.g. homosexuals, Jews, immigrants, blacks. Being homophobic, racist or xenophobic isn’t OK but why is it alright to make jokes at the expense of women?
The backlash was big and Hunt went on to resign from his position at UCL. However, the backlash faced its own backlash. Many people, especially female scientists, who spoke out against Hunt’s sexism were hounded online and issued with death threats. It seems lots of people are passionate about defending a man’s right to be sexist. But it was when London Mayor Boris Johnson weighed in on the debate that I really got angry.
Enter Stage Left Boris Johnson: in an interview Johnson said Hunt had fallen victim to the “ferocious stinging bees of the Twittersphere” thereby trivialising the views of people who use Twitter. This just shows how desensitised he has become to his own power – he’s the mayor of London, a journalist, an MP – his voice can be easily heard over and over again, yet he doesn’t seem inclined to care about the views of those with less easy access to power. He then said people should take Hunt’s comment “in the spirit in which it was meant”, so basically asking us to enjoy sexist and misogynistic jokes that demean women. Really!?
He went on to write an article in the Telegraph, highlights include: “…the world’s leading expert on crying, Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, has shown that women on average cry 30-64 times a year, while men cry only between six and 17 times a year…Whether you say it is a function of biology or social expectation, it is a fact that – on the whole – men and women express emotion differently. There is, in other words, a gender difference, and it should not be an offence to say that.”
Hunt was categorically not merely stating a “gender difference” – he was making a joke at women’s expense. That Johnson attempts to back this up by referring to some scientist who has analysed how often men and women cry is somewhat comic. Furthermore, the study (withstanding questions of its validity and reliability) actually tells us very little because it doesn’t tell us why women might cry more than men. Perhaps living in a repressive, patriarchal, sexist, misogynistic, body shaming, slut shaming, rape culture as we do does make the victims of oppression cry a lot but Johnson doesn’t seem inclined to explore this context. And that’s just it, neither Johnson nor Hunt care because they’ve never been made to – they haven’t experienced oppression in the way women do and they clearly haven’t exercised their empathetic capacities to try to understand what it might be like to be discriminated against. That’s why Hunt can make such casually sexist remarks and why Johnson will defend him in doing so, they just don’t get it.
Contextualising Johnson: it’s not enough just to lambast Johnson, as fun and easy as it is, we must also try to understand how someone can make comments like his and not realise how offensive they are. So who is Boris Johnson?
He is a heterosexual, cisgendered, white male. He’s also privately educated having gone to Eton boarding school for (predominantly white) boys and he studied at Oxford University, founded around 919 years ago but only letting women in 90 years ago. The political world he navigates is dominated by men just like him making it far easier for him to rise through the ranks as he’s one of the ‘old boys’. In other words, he is exceptionally privileged – his suitability for a job will never have been questioned simply because he is a woman, he will rarely have found himself a minority figure in his chosen profession, he won’t have been cat called on his way to work or judged meriticious for his job based on his appearance or forced to accept a lower salary than a colleague of the opposite gender in the same position or slut shamed or a whole host of other acts of oppression and violence that are perpetrated against women in our society.
But Johnson isn’t only privileged he’s also ignorant. In a society rife with information he’s still managed to ignore the lessons that feminism tries to impart. Combine that ignorance with a lack of empathy – the ability to imagine what another person’s experience is like – and it’s no wonder he can’t fathom why people would be offended at Hunt’s ‘joke’. In the video below he gives his defence of Hunt – he cites his great work in science and his Nobel prize – in fact he defines Hunt’s worth by what he has achieved. But his achievements cannot excuse a terrible attitude that trivialises the continued prejudice women face, within and without of the scientific community.
With regards Hunt’s resignation Johnson says it’s a “bit hard”. Yes, it is a bit hard and it’s going to keep getting harder and harder for out of touch sexists to maintain positions of responsibility whilst they continue making women’s lives more difficult. Anyway, far worse than Hunt’s resignation is the continued prejudice women face within the patriarchy – that’s the real issue here, not Hunt’s job position, and that’s what we need to unite in challenging and changing. Hunt and Johnson will be key figures in this change but first they need some serious re-education and a few basic lessons in compassion because, at the end of the day, the trouble isn’t with “girls” it’s with sexists.