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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

MARGARET WENTE

Science, sexism and the Nobel laureate Add to ...

So here is what we’ve come to. A world-renowned Nobel laureate makes a lame, offhand joke about women in the lab at a scientific conference. The outraged tweets go round the world. Shock and horror ensue. Within hours, the laureate – Sir Tim Hunt, age 72 – is publicly disemboweled, stripped of his positions, and condemned as the ugly face of sexism in science.

Here’s the lame joke: “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 criticize them, they cry.”

He says he spoke in a “totally ironic, jocular way.” But nobody cared. He might as well have been advocating genocide.

The idea that the world of science is rife with misogyny and sexism is by now deeply embedded in progressive thought. For years we’ve been told that girls are subtly discouraged from taking math and science, and that women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) face hostile environments, discrimination in hiring and promotion, lower pay, and exclusion from the old boys’ club.

But if that was once true, it isn’t true any more. In fact, in some ways women now have the edge. Cornell University professors Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci recently conducted extensive research to test gender attitudes among hundreds of academic scientists. When asked to rate hypothetical job candidates with equal qualifications, the scientists – both male and female – almost invariably preferred the women, sometimes by a factor of two or three to one.

“Our analysis reveals that the experiences of young and midcareer women in math-intensive fields are, for the most part, similar to those of their male counterparts,” they wrote in The New York Times. “They are more likely to receive hiring offers, are paid roughly the same … are generally tenured and promoted at the same rate (except in economics), remain in their fields at roughly the same rate, have their grants funded and articles accepted as often and are about as satisfied with their jobs. ... In sum, with a few exceptions, the world of academic science in math-based fields today reflects gender fairness, rather than gender bias.”

More young women (and their families) need to hear this good news. If they did, perhaps fewer of them would be scared away from science and technology by exaggerated and outdated tales of discrimination and gender bias.

It’s true that men still hold most of the top jobs in science. And women are still more likely to cluster into life sciences and psychology rather than engineering. But women who choose engineering and other math-intensive disciplines do just as well as men. Professors Williams and Ceci believe that most of the differences in men’s and women’s science career paths can be explained by women’s earlier educational choices, and by different lifestyle and occupational preferences.

None of that will help the unlucky Sir Tim, who is now more famous for a sexist joke than for his contributions to humanity. As he told the Guardian this weekend, he was “hung to dry” by spineless institutions that didn’t even bother to contact him before they cut him off and ran for cover. His wife, Mary Collins, a prominent scientist herself, agrees. “He is certainly not an old dinosaur,” she said. “He just says silly things now and then.”

Other female scientists also rushed to his defence. “The way his remarks have been taken up implies that women in science are having a horrible time,” Professor Ottoline Leyser, a plant biologist at Cambridge University, said to the Guardian. “That is not the case. I, for one, am having a wonderful time.”

It’s too bad that so many feminists reacted to a silly comment about overly emotional women in a way that proves the point. It’s also too bad so many people can’t admit that sometimes, things change for the better. A lot of hard work has gone into changing the attitudes of scientists toward women, and vice versa. Instead of continuing to nurse imaginary grievances, we should be glad those efforts are paying off.

Meanwhile, the disgraced Nobel laureate is despondent. “I am finished,” he told the Guardian. “I have become toxic.”

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