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Nobel laureate resigns after comments on female scientists

Nobel laureate Tim Hunt resigned from University College London Wednesday, after suggesting that female scientists cry when criticized.
English biochemist, the Nobel-prize winner Sir Richard Timothy 'Tim' Hunt. (Photo by Csaba Segesvari/AFP/Getty)
English biochemist, the Nobel-prize winner Sir Richard Timothy 'Tim' Hunt meets with the press on March 22, 2012, during an international conference series held on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Hungarian Albert Szent-Gyorgyi’s Nobel Prize Award.

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” 72-year-old Nobel laureate Tim Hunt said on Monday to the The World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea.

“Three things happen when they [women] are in the lab,” the eminent biochemist continued. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

Those sentiments sparked a rapid and widespread backlash, fueled by broader concerns over gender bias and discrimination in the world of science. On Wednesday, Hunt resigned from his post as honorary professor at University College London.

In an interview with BBC 4, Hunt apologized for causing offense, explaining that his comments were intended to be ironic and lighthearted. However, he also insisted that they were genuine and rooted in personal experience.

“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” he told BBC 4. “I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me, and it’s very disruptive to the science because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.”

Hunt then clarified his comments about female scientists’ emotional volatility, saying “It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth.” 

Hunt, who won the Nobel prize as part of a team studying cellular division, went on to acknowledge that it was “very stupid” to make such comments in the presence of journalists who were liable to take them “deadly seriously.”

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If Hunt's critics failed to see the humor in his musings, that's likely due to the well-documented gender discrimination in academic science.

A Yale study from 2012 presented academic scientists with identical applications from imaginary undergraduates seeking positions as lab managers. Each résumé was randomly assigned a male or female name. Regardless of their own gender, the scientists consistently ranked male applicants higher than their female doppelgangers, and offered them an average of $4,000 more for their services.

University College London released a statement on Hunt’s resignation Wednesday, which read in part, “UCL was the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men, and the university believes that this outcome is compatible with our commitment to gender equality."