‘Girls’ in the lab and the point of science engagement

Women in science labs editorial.jpg
Copyright: Gates Foundation/Flickr

Speed read

  • Nobel laureate Tim Hunt resigned over his reflections on ‘girls’ in the lab
  • Science journalists must probe the values as well as the work of key players
  • Even scientific pioneers can’t be excused from ignoring gender issues

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The uproar over Tim Hunt’s remarks on ‘girls’ in the lab shows why gender awareness in science journalism matters.

The World Conference of Science Journalists held in Seoul this year had fewer exhibiting organisations than usual. But in one important regard it was the most successful conference the World Federation of Science Journalists had convened: it got journalists and the public talking about the work of scientists and those who report on them.

The inciting incident was not pretty. At a special lunch for female delegates, 72-year-old Nobel laureate Tim Hunt shared a few reflections about the challenges of having “girls” in the lab.

Since then, Hunt has given mixed messages in the media about whether his comments should be taken in jest or reflect his real feelings based on real experience. But whether he was joking or not, this was a poor judgement call.

Connie St Louis, an academic and journalist, sent a tweet reflecting her outrage. Soon both she and Hunt were being interviewed on the BBC. Facebook was abuzz with indignation and all manner of press were looking for quotes from a previously obscure conference in South Korea.

Hunt resigned from University College London and Twitter got a new meme — #distractinglysexy — an ongoing campaign by female scientists mocking his comments.

There is an important lesson here for science and those who report on it that goes well beyond the limits of humour in public speaking, Hunt’s statements and the specifics of this case. 

Reduced to a hashtag

We might remark on the absurdity of the story: a man who makes a potentially important contribution to curing cancer — by codiscovering key regulators of the cell-division cycle — and a conference that covers diverse and involved topics from nuclear energy to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are both reduced to a hashtag about sex. 

But doing this misses one of the key points about public engagement with science that this controversy presents, which is around the role of journalists in holding key players to account. 

The public cannot be expected to stay constantly briefed on the technical developments relating to every area of science that might affect their lives. So they have to trust that those working on their behalf have their best interests at heart.

Just as people have to trust that recommendations on nuclear waste disposal do not value some neighbourhoods less than others, they must trust, for instance, that medical researchers consider a woman’s physiology as much as a man’s when they investigate the properties of a drug — but this is not necessarily the case, as many researchers still work exclusively with male mice.

Interrogating science

The accountability that science journalists are expected to uphold is about values, typically focused on research competency or fraud. But there are other values that they should be concerned with — for example, those reflected in having diminished expectations of any social group. Science, like technology, changes social relationships. When introduced to our imperfect societies, there are typically winners and losers — GMOs are a good but by no means unique example. It stands to reason then that science and some of those who conduct it wield considerable social power.

To serve the public, journalists need to interrogate the societal changes driven by science just as they need to question the value systems of those who wield this power.

The other key point to take from this incident is about what matters for wellbeing and the place of science in our lives. Opportunities for work and political representation, for example, matter enormously — just as much or even more than any single scientific breakthrough, even when it comes to something as emotive as cancer. From that perspective, no social group should be expected to remain cowed and grateful to any scientific pioneer if they voice views that endorse the denial of other opportunities for that group.

In this regard, feminists are not being unreasonably damning of accomplished scientists who appear to be denying women’s multidimensional rights.

Beyond headlines about ‘women’

These considerations are why SciDev.Net decided to take seriously the effort to mainstream gender awareness across its work. Editorially it has meant moving beyond headlines about “women” and starting to think of gender groups that may be affected in different ways by the subject of our stories. In our user engagement work, it has meant thinking about access to our editors and our content from the perspective of different groups and networks. (All our reader surveys reveal different ratings from men and women.)

Two workshops for staff, our analysis blogs on gender as well as the reports of our independent gender review group are captured in our practical guide on mainstreaming gender in science reporting.

This has been a real journey for staff at SciDev.Net. Initially it wasn’t clear how awareness of dynamics around gender would affect stories about innovations or agriculture for instance. But now the teams are pretty clear that when it comes to generating headlines and changing practice, gender does matter in science.

Nick Perkins is the director of SciDev.Net. @Nick_Ishmael