The problem with girls is…


Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt has been forced to resign from his post at University College London for saying this:

“Let me tell you about my 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.”

In his interviews since the resignation, you can tell that he doesn’t quite understand what all the fuss is about. He said:

“I’ve been hung out to dry. They haven’t even bothered to ask for my side of affairs.”

And today we hear that Boris Johnson has leapt in to his defence. Which is probably the last person in the whole wide world that Sir Tim wanted to defend him. It would be like asking Attila the Hun to appear as your character witness when you are in court for non-payment of a parking fine.

Let’s take his statement apart, phrase by phrase:

“My trouble …”

What this is saying is that there is a fundamental flaw. It is a problem so big that it overrides everything else. There is no room for “on the one hand; on the other hand” – advantages and disadvantages. We are into the world of sweeping statements and stereotyping.

He might as well have said “girls are rubbish because…”. It amounts to much the same thing.

“…with girls.”

In other words, the entire female population. Not only is this trouble so overwhelmingly important, it also applies to each and every human being who isn’t male.

And notice the use of the word “girls” and not women. We are talking about women as sex objects.

“Three things happen when they are in the lab…”

When we blokes deign to let these foreign creatures in to our domain. All they do is … good work? Useful research? Excellent team work? Those three things?

Nope. Sir Time’s “three things” are 1. falling in love, 2. (ahem) falling in love and 3. crying. That’s all girls do in the lab, apparently.

“you fall in love with them…”

Ahem. As a married man of 72, don’t you mean “when you lech after young women much younger than you?”

And exactly what part of you falling in love with “girls” is their fault?

“…they fall in love with you…”

In your dreams.

“… and when you criticise them they cry.”

Are we really saying that men can’t criticise women in the workplace because they will turn on the waterworks? This seems to come from the same fantasy land as the idea that a young “girl” will fall in love with a 72 year old man. Or maybe it’s the way you deliver criticism? If your criticism is as ham-fisted as this speech maybe they would cry. Maybe many men would too.

So, Sir Tim, do we need to hear your side of affairs? As soon as you have said “my trouble with girls….” there is almost no way you can end that sentence that will rescue the situation.

And now Boris jumps in to the defence. And this brings to mind an old saying. If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. And if you see someone else in a hole, don’t jump in to help him dig.

There is a serious debate to be had about how men and women work together. We do need to figure out how to combine work and romance. Sexuality can be an issue. We shouldn’t shy away from it, nor should we assume that men and women are the same.

I do feel a little sorry for Sir Tim. He is an eminent scientist who has been summarily punished for one Gerald Ratner moment. His punishment seems a little harsh. It seems to fit the current climate of wanting to polarise everyone into heroes or villains.

What he said was crass and unhelpful and has rightly been criticised. But for all we know it might have been less objectionable if seen in the context of the rest of the speech. It didn’t help that the speech was given in a conference about the role of women in science. Of all the times and places to make a sexist comment, this was quite possibly the worst one to choose.

By defending him, Boris makes himself look less and less like a Prime Minister in waiting – more buffoon than statesman.

Political correctness isn’t easy. Sometimes we can be so afraid of upsetting someone that we are afraid to say anything. But this is a clear-cut case of saying the wrong thing.


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