The Trouble With Girls in Lab
It’s been a tough few weeks for women in science. In a June column of Science entitled “Help! My Advisor Won’t Stop Looking Down My Shirt” contributor Dr Alice Huang advised a female trainee that her problem was “common in the workplace”. She went on to suggest that “As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can.” These comments would have been hard to take from anyone, but Huang’s status as former president of the AAAS published in a high profile journal evoked such outcry that the post was removed within hours by Science (the link provided above is a web archive), and an apology posted in its place.
Not to be outdone in ‘please stop talking now’ Olympics, Nobel Prize winning biochemist and self-proclaimed chauvinist, Sir Tim Hunt, suggested that ‘girls have no place in the lab’ and “are crybabies” at the World Conference of Science Journalists. These comments following thanking female attendees for “making lunch”. He then rounded out his statements with his opinion that girls in lab are distractingly sexy. Hunt quickly learned that news of sexism in science travels far faster than the pony express used to and sharing his views with a room fill ed with female scientists and journalists was a poor choice. The lesson on how to apologize, however, seemed lost on him when he reiterated the bulk of his views in a subsequent BBC interview stating he “did mean the part about having trouble with girls [in lab]”. Without irony, he noted it was a stupid thing to do in a room full or journalists. These comments led many who previously thought they might not be smart enough to ever win any prize, much less a Nobel, to reconsider their aspirations.
Snarkery aside, both of these events are horrible. They speak to a reality women have had to endure walking down an academic path that was created for men by men. It is heart breaking to see another generation exposed to this sort of stupidity. And yet, a few truly brilliant things came of these dual face palming moments. Women in STEM posting photos of themselves in what could at best be described as less than flattering everyday lab garb including hazmat suits, goggles and field swamp waders using the Twitter hashtag #DistractinglySexy. This hashtag has been tweeted over 80,000 times and is great payback from a kinder, funnier and far more informed segment of science. Another point of pride is that each event was swiftly called out in offices around academia as well as by social media savvy scientists, journalists and even an NIH Bear .
Not long ago, these stories would have gone into the collective science consciousness shared via whispers and eyerolls at conferences and water coolers. And most trainees would probably not have heard of either story. They certainly wouldn’t be google-searchable, much less have made it to the pages of Time and The Washington Post. Here’s hoping this kind of awareness and open discussion continues.
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