June 2015: A safe place to share

President's Letters l

In response to the recent Tim Hunt immolation, I asked myself: Do co-workers fall in love with you? Or vice versa? Do you cry when criticized?

Well actually, yes.

I met Steve when we were working in the AP bureau together in San Francisco. We will celebrate our 38th anniversary next month. As office romances go, it wasn’t particularly torrid. We always seemed to work different shifts (the joys of the AP’s 24/7 scheduling) and after a few months he left to work at a local paper. I thought we had successfully hidden the relationship from colleagues, but they later told me they all knew. (No reporter wants to admit to being scooped).

While I can’t recall a specific instance, I know there were times in the early years of my career when I came close to tears if not actually cried while being criticized. This would happen when I felt the criticism was unfair and that I was powerless against my supervisor.

I do not think Nobel Laureate Hunt was thinking of someone like me (never mind that I’m not a scientist) when he said: “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.”

The social media scrum went bonkers. He was forced to resign his academic post. He has since apologized, saying his words at a conference in Seoul were the result of nervousness and did not reflect his views on women in science. His wife, Mary Collins, a senior immunologist, told The Guardian that Hunt “is certainly not an old dinosaur. He just says silly things now and again.”

For me, there are several take-aways.

  1. Yes, sometimes there is romance in the workplace. I didn’t plan to fall in love with a colleague, but it happened. If it happens to you, act professionally in the newsroom and inform your supervisor. Also, check on company policies about relationships, especially if one of you supervises the other.
  2. Crying in front of others is not a great career strategy. There’s a clear gender double standard. Just ask former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. I would hope younger women are gaining the confidence and the newsroom negotiating skills to handle challenging and frustrating situations without tearing up (one reason we need JAWS!). But if you do, don’t apologize. A man wouldn’t.
  3. At least Pat Schroeder had her “moment” before today’s social media existed. The gleeful Twitter takedown of Tim Hunt raises questions about fairness and balance. But even “silly things” can harm and undermine the goal of supporting women in science and breaking down remaining sexist barriers. Just as we need to take a breath before we tweet, so does a prominent scientist before speaking about women in labs.

At some point in your career, did a boss or teacher or a source make a sexist, racist or other unacceptable comment in front of you? How did you or would you respond? Does it make a difference because of the person’s position, even if he or she would insist later that it was just a “silly thing?” What if it’s a co-worker, someone you supervise or an acquaintance — would you respond differently?

JAWS is a safe place where we can share our views and experiences in response to the discussion Tim Hunt unwittingly ignited. I hope we continue this conversation on the listserv and over drinks at CAMP.

—Linda Kramer Jenning