Some thoughts on Tim Hunt and the problems of power

I hadn’t intended to post anything on the Tim Hunt affair.  This was not simply because I am not a scientist.  As Rachel Moss has demonstrated, some of us in the humanities have eloquent points to make about gender and professional academic relations well beyond the lab. It was principally because the response of so many female scientists on Twitter, posting under the #devestatinglysexy hash tag, made, through ironic appropriation and genuine self-deprecation, the elegant and amusing point of how damn silly and outdated the views Professor Hunt expressed were in a non-aggressive fashion.

And then I read this. And started to get interested. Because it implicitly highlighted something that has been missing from the discussion of exactly why this ‘joke’ was not simply unfunny, but deeply problematic for interpersonal relationships in some parts of academia. And we need to discuss it, ‘it’ being the relationships of power and authority which shape our working lives (both within and without academia) and which, all too often, are still shaped by gender and caricatures of gender.

What do I mean? Professor Collins, in her defense of her husband, is quoted as saying “You can see why it [the ‘joke’] could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s. Nevertheless he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.” But this completely ignores the fact that, due to his exceptional scientific abilities, Professor Hunt has earned himself a position of renown which means his views are encountered, and taken seriously, by many, many people who do not know him, are not married to him, were never his students.  His ability has, quite rightly, won him a position of power and authority within the world of scientific research. He held influential positions at UCL and with the European Research Council.  But with power and authority comes responsibility. And making ‘jokes’ which demean their subjects in public is to wield authority irresponsibly.  It is an abuse of power.

Yes, I know that Professor Hunt has claimed that his ‘joke’ was self-deprecating.  But this is only one-third true, at best.  Charitably, it might be argued that the claim that one result of working with women is that ‘you [the man] fall in love with them [the girls]’ (and yes, I do think it telling that Professor Hunt has refered to female scientists as ‘girls’ in both his original speech and his later interview for the Today Programme) is self-deprecating. But the other two claims, that ‘they fall in love with you’ and that women cry when criticised are not self-deprecating, they are deprecating only of others, others defined solely by their sex.  Forgive me Professor Collins, but if that isn’t sexist, I’m not quite sure how you are defining the term.

In other words, Professor Hunt used his position of power as a noted and notable scientist to make fun of a particular group who work in a subordinate position to him.  One not very nice word for this is bullying.  And, with my own professional hat on, thinking about the power structures of gender relations (intermasculine relationships in this case) in medical contexts as I am doing at present, it made me start to question how much power relations within scientific laboratories are structured by gender.  I don’t only mean the assumptions which are always cited in relation to why relatively few women go into STEM subjects – the gendering of science as a masculine pursuit from childhood, the lack of support for women in relation to maternity – but also those that relate to the specific community structures of the lab which are not places of equality or even meritocracy from what I can gather.  The lab leader, the principle investigator on the grant, the man or woman who recruits and employs a team to undertake research into a question he or she has defined and refined, is a person of immense power and patronage within this professional arena.  I have seen this at work when I was a PhD student and a contemporary found himself at odds with his supervisor, the scientist in whose lab he was working.  The end result was the PhD student left without taking his degree and went off to become a much happier and more successful doctor.  In this anecdotal case, the student was male and the supervisor female, but I started wondering about how gender shaped relationships within these personal spaces, as it shaped relationships in the even-more intimate space of the hospital ward. [1] I was interested enough to throw the question open to Twitter, and received back enough responses to form an interesting reading list for a moment of rather more leisure.  However, Dominic Berry did note that it is hard to find historical sources on this question from inside the lab itself.  These are still secretive spaces whose power structures remain opaque. Maybe, in light of Professor Hunt’s ‘joke’, it is time we started to explore these social spaces more critically from the perspective of gender.

Which brings me on to the final point I feel I need to make in relation to Professor Hunt, and this is specifically to do with his now former role as a member of the European Research Council’s Scientific Council, the governing body which defines the strategy and methodology of the Council’s funding aims.  Now, as it happens, from September I will begin a five year research project funded by an ERC Starting Grant.  As part of this grant I will be building my own research team, recruiting a postdoctoral researcher and two postgraduate students to work on aspects of an ambitious project whose questions I have defined and refined.  The money is in my name. I will be in a position of no little power and patronage. (Sound familiar?  Structures of power within academia and their potential for abuse are as relevant to the humanities as to the sciences in many ways, although the scope for escaping from toxic relationships with comparatively little damage may be slightly greater in the former.)

The leadership aspect is a key element of the remit of the Starting Grant, which aims to enable excellent science, where ambition and scope are deemed integral to excellence.  Frankly, I am terrified of the responsibility it brings, but I am excited as well.  I believe I can rise to the challenges that developing as an academic leader will pose in the coming years in no small part because I have had several superb teachers and mentors, both men and women, who have demonstrated by example how to build successful and supportive teams.  In fact, at risk of embarrassing her, I would suggest that Professor Alison Fell, leader of the Legacies of War project, provides one of the best examples of how to recruit, nurture and lead a successful team in the humanities that it has been my privilege to encounter. I consider myself extremely lucky to be part of that team.

I have no doubt that the many female scientists who came out in support of Professor Hunt, pointing to the ways he nurtured their individual careers, have much the same feeling about him as I have about those who have taught and mentored me. But their defense has the same flaw as that of his wife; Professor Hunt is a man of authority above and beyond the circle of his intimates and pupils.  He earned that authority and nothing should detract from the skill which earned it, but he has demonstrated an inability to use it wisely.  In doing so, he has potentially undermined the mission of the ERC, to promote excellence in science, and leadership in the field, wherever it may be identified.  In such circumstances, he had to resign, however painful that might be for him personally.

But for myself, this whole sorry situation has at least taught me an important lesson to take with me into my next challenge.  I will take up my new role with an exquisite awareness of the responsibilities it places on me to wield my authority (however limited) wisely and to assume, always, that I will be judged by those who do not know me, either as a historian or a woman.

[1] See also Ana Carden-Coyne, The Politics of Wounds: Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War.

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