The supposed effect of women in laboratories has led to the enforced, very public, resignation of Sir Tim Hunt: should someone in that situation really lose their job? This week’s head-2-head addresses that question with Hilary arguing that they shouldn’t and Sally arguing that they should.
Last month's head-2-head was about modern slavery and, quite surprisingly, no-one who voted thought it had relevance to them, although it is, of course, important in every manufacturing and retail business. Having said that, there was unanimous support for more publicity about the issue and that must be right. The results of the voting can be found here.
Nobel prize winner, Sir Tim Hunt, paid a heavy price when he was forced to resign from a number of prestigious academic posts following his public comments about the “trouble with girls” working in laboratories. Professor Hunt did subsequently apologise, although he also confirmed that he “did mean” what he had said.
Many public figures came out in support of Sir Tim and described his treatment and the media furore which followed as an over-reaction to someone merely reporting what they had observed during their career. I totally disagree.
As a society we have spent decades striving for gender equality and, while there is still a long way to go, we have made huge advances over the years. Sexist comments of this nature can only serve to undermine the progress made and demoralise those who are still working hard to bridge the gender gap.
We live in an age where those who express their views in public should expect their comments to be shared through social media within minutes across the globe. It is no longer realistic to think that your audience is limited to those seated in the room with you. Anyone who gives a speech in a public forum has a responsibility to take account of that. If you’re going to say something with which people may disagree, you should, within limits of course, be prepared to take the backlash.
While we can’t realistically expect to eliminate sexist views (and nor should we – people should be free to hold and express whatever views they wish), we can and should expect people to be accountable for the way in which they share those views, especially in a public forum.
I wonder whether the reaction may have been different if Professor Hunt’s remarks had been of a racist, rather than sexist, nature. I suspect he may not have attracted as much support from other public figures. If we’re not prepared to condone racism, why should sexism be any different?
If Sir Tim had remained in his various posts, the organisations with which he was working would have faced the considerable dilemma of how to manage his relationship with his female colleagues. Some of his colleagues may have been able to take his comments as a joke and forget about them. Others will, understandably, have been offended by what he said and are likely to have lost a great deal of respect for him. His conduct would have been under close scrutiny. The slightest hint of any sexist comments or behaviour in the future could have landed any one of the institutions with a very difficult grievance or discrimination claim to deal with. His ‘employers’ simply couldn’t afford to overlook the incident.
There is also a reputational issue to consider here. Many organisations work hard to operate on an ‘equal opportunities’ basis. They should be entitled to expect those who represent them, especially in public, to do so in accordance with such policies. If the conduct of an employee could bring an organisation into disrepute, then dismissal should be an option open to employers.
I know what you’re thinking. Professor Hunt is an extreme example and not all sexist comments can be seen in the same light. That’s true and I concede that a lot depends on context. It is difficult to compare the comments of an eminent professor during a public speech with the comments of an employee in the arguably ‘public’ forum of the staff canteen. But, where the context is appropriate, employers should be able to sack someone when they cross the line.
There has been considerable coverage of the remarks made by Sir Tim Hunt who said at a conference that “three things happen when [women] are in the lab…. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry…” There is no doubt that the comments were ill-thought through and sexist, even if they were said in jest and arguably taken out of context. But should anyone really to be forced to resign over an incredibly unfunny “joke”? I don’t think so.
As employment lawyers, we advise clients to look at the context, to take account of the wider picture and to consider what is the reasonable response to any transgression or potential act of misconduct. As part of this we look at whether what was said constituted harassment in the legal sense. Namely, do the views expressed constitute “unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity or creating an offensive, intimidating or hostile environment”? If they don’t, is there any reason to take any action? Knee jerk reactions to ill-thought out opinions, especially when pushed as a result of trial by media, rarely lead to a “fair” outcome. The role of employers and their HR specialists is to investigate and support their employees.
I doubt many organisations would have behaved differently and I don’t agree with the sentiments which are expressed in Sir Tim’s comments. Yet I don’t think he really believes that this is a problem with women in science. If I am right about this and it was just an ill-thought out joke, the penalty has been extremely harsh.
In any civilised and democratic country, it is vitally important that unpopular opinions can be expressed and challenged, particularly within an academic context. The law (and employment law) accepts that academics should have additional protection to express the views they hold, even if those views are unpopular, provided that the views are legal. We need academics to be able to research and to do so freely without fear that the output of their research, and the way they express their thoughts will be censored. That is how research progresses, ideas are tested and a conclusion reached.It is simply not true to say that there is one single truth. All employees, especially academics, should have the freedom to disagree, particularly when there may be opposing arguments. Academics can and do engage in these debates and must be encouraged to do so even if their opinions are not popular.
Once Sir Tim had said what he did, he then had a degree of bad luck in the negative coverage he received. That leaves the employer with a risk to assess. Do they take action and demand a resignation, which may make a scapegoat of one individual, or do nothing which may imply that the organisation tolerates or even supports the possibly sexist sentiment behind the comments?
It is difficult to balance these risks especially where other factors also come into play. It is also reasonable for an employer to take any or all of these into account, including questions of academic freedom. But I am not sure the penalty of dismissal is reasonable. Personally, I would prefer employers to respond with training, understanding and tolerance.
Some people may look askance at off-colour jokes but to crack down on them would require policing every comedy club in the land. Everyday sexism does still exist and all of us need to think before we speak in our personal as well as our professional lives.
But we do not need the Thought Police. We should not tolerate death by Twitter — or hysterical prejudice masquerading as concerns over sexism.