SocietyScience & Technology #DistractinglySexy Women In Science And ‘Single Sex’ Labs

#DistractinglySexy Women In Science And ‘Single Sex’ Labs

Tim Hunt insisted on creating ‘single sex’ labs (read: gender segregated), so as to prevent any distraction to the men.

Posted by Aindrila Chaudhuri & Jason Jayology

In the past few days, our news feeds have been filled with updates of several stories of some brave women who are rallying a call against a deeply patriarchal culture. These include the activists from Argentina who joined in large numbers on the streets to protest against domestic violence, Yemen’s first woman rapper Amani Yahya who is using her music to talk about sexual harassment and women’s rights, and actress Vishakha Singh who bravely handled a misogynistic comment on her Facebook page.

However, it is not always a triumph for the cause of women’s rights, as is clearly evident from certain cases- “Kenlissia Jones, 23, Facing Death Sentence for Abortion” fresh off the heels of the already buried miscarriage of justice which has begun draining the life blood of Purvi Patel. And who can ignore the violently obtuse responses of white men defending a rabid cop infected with the transgenerational epigenetics of hyper masculine sexualized racist misogyny.

And guess what folks?! Recently, we came across Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt‘s “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls…” statement. We can only hope that this man of science is going to say something like, “They are busy carrying the weight of history under the tides of silence in the largest resistance to man’s destruction“. However, predictably, as we see, what we have known for quite some time actually, that science has once again failed to live up to its claims of being value neutral and objective in nature. Bruno Latour’s ‘Science in Action’ examines how social context is very important in understanding how science actually operates in the real world. The scientific institutions and the people who are active participants in the system often times uphold racism and misogyny through the privilege of the perverted minds holding social turnstiles to the most prominent discussions at the universities whose access is based on social bell curves. Tim Hunt responds from his position of master of the universe ‘he-man’ ivy pillar with, “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”.

Not only that, he insists on creating ‘single sex’ labs (read: gender segregated), so as to prevent any distraction to the men. Mr. Hunt, if you will allow us, we would like to point out certain problematic aspects about the advice you choose to give us all.

Gender segregation is a very troubling phenomenon that already exists in scientific institutions. The dictates of masculinity and femininity affect the way people perceive and ‘do’ science. It is a well known fact that there are many harmful stereotypes about how men and women perform differently in analytical and investigative work (the assumption being that men are better at it). The idea behind this is that a person’s biology dictates how well they carry out certain tasks. However, the ‘biology as fate’ argument fails if we were to talk about brilliant scientists like Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Kadambini Ganguly etc who despite all odds and in the face of staunch societal pressure, achieved greatness through sheer perseverance and their love for science.

However, occupational segregation is very problematic because men are seen as the norm and women as the clear aberration. Science is still a very masculine work sphere. This is reflected through sheer numbers and the success stories we hear in the scientific community. The Leaky pipeline metaphor is a very good illustration of how women end up dropping out of STEM subjects as they move from primary education to college to further institutions of knowledge. The metaphor points to the fact that many societal barriers prevent women from effectively engaging with these subjects. Therefore, much like a pipeline that leaks, they end up leaving through the cracks or the fault lines.

Now that we have established how tricky the already existing problem with gender based segregation is, Mr. Hunt, do you fail to realize that being a woman in a hyper masculine field, in what is clearly an ‘all boys club’, can already be a very alienating experience? Do we have to tell you how this can affect one’s career projection? How the glass ceiling hits these scientists and researchers, who become dissatisfied with their work environment? Lack of proper mentorship and a conducive environment as well as colleagues who are supportive, can be very exhausting and daunting.

Yes, gender is a social construct and is not real. However, it has a very real affect on these women’s lives. There have been many brilliant women in the past, whose work has been sidelined, ridiculed and made invisible. Sometimes, it has even been credited to someone else – Rosalind Franklin was denied credit for her seminal work on DNA and gene theory. It was years later that the truth came out in public. However, the damage was already done. Yes, Mr. Hunt, the damage is very real. Make no mistake about it. And now, you want to further create fences that will not only cement these stereotypes but further impede women’s achievements in science?

It is our hope that people realize how gender segregation is not the answer to men overcoming ‘distractions’ while working. It actually feeds into a system of victim blaming and does not solve the issue of misogyny. The status quo remains unchanged where women are always seen as the outsiders who distract the men hard at work.

Interestingly, as we are writing this piece, we see Mr. Hunt stepping down from his position at UCL.  However, Hunt told the media that he had not meant to cause offence but added that he “did mean the part about having trouble with girls”.

Featured Image Credit: ISRO’s women

This article has been jointly written by Aindrila Chaudhuri and Jason JayologyAindrila Chaudhuri: An IT engineer. Interested in sex positive ideas and feminist praxis. Author’s blogJason Jayology: Artistic Director of the NYC based grass roots performing arts collective, Price of Silence. Author’s blog

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