My Take: Dr. Hunt - Just apologize already!

(TL;DR: The continuing furor over Dr. Tim Hunt's comments were brought on by his total lack of acceptance for his statements. He needs to make a formal public statement that apologizes for his statements and subsequent actions. An example apology is provided for his reference)

Like many of you, I have been closely watching the row over Tim Hunt’s “ill advised” comments. There are so many things that could be said, but there is one thing that has yet to be said properly:

“I’m sorry.”

The discussion has taken on a life of its own, one where the focus has been taken away from the comments, has moved past commenting on the reactions, and now is starting to become about commenting on the comments to the reactions. I believe the word “meta” could have been created just for this situation. As could the words “unnecessary” and “stupid.”

It just didn’t need to be this way.

Dr. Hunt is not the first smart person to say or do something stupid lately. Matt Taylor, the chief scientist for the Rosetta mission that successfully placed a lander on a comet, wore an inappropriate shirt and cracked a sexual double-entendre at a major press conference. Shrinivas Kulkarni of Caltech called scientists “boys with toys”. And just yesterday, the Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) claimed that sexual misconduct in the Canadian military was due to “different biological wiring” in men.

But the first two did not reach the level of discussion and, lets be honest, vehemence that Dr. Hunt’s comments have (the jury is still out on the third one). Why? Matt Taylor stemmed much of the tide by coming out with a full honest apology where he broke down in tears. Dr. Kulkarni, on the other hand, went totally silent - I have seen no indication of an apology at all.

But in the end there were reactions that could be construed as “good.” Dr. Taylor’s fashion choice led to the creation of #thatothershirt” which celebrates women in science. Dr. Kulkarni’s comments led to the twitter #girlswithtoys reaction that has highlighted women in science in a fun, exciting, and effective way. 

But Dr. Hunt’s comments linger, and the reaction has split the community. The reactions have been called “overreactions” and “disproportionate.” People defend him by saying that he has helped many women gain their Ph.D.’s and has always supported the women in STEM cause. And I have no doubt that he has helped and supported women.

But that does not excuse his comments, and it certainly does not excuse his reactions.

While some would claim that Dr. Hunt apologized, I don’t see it that way. His apology basically said “I am sorry I said what I honestly think, but I still believe I’m right and I’m sorry that that offends you.” In short, the problem is not with him, but with you.

That is bad enough, but having dug himself a hole he has brought in a backhoe and kept digging. He moans that he has been “hung out to dry” and that no-one has asked for his side of the story.

Well, Mr. Hunt, I am afraid that you have dug your own grave here. Yes, the comments were “ill-advised” - stupid even - but it is the lack of honest contrition that has done you in. The problem is not with us for being offended, but with you - not just for making the comments - but for trying to put them off as being “just a joke” (the go-to response of bullies everywhere) and trying to deflect blame. You have not accepted responsibility for the comments, and you have not attempted to set things right.

So, with that in mind, let me run a rough draft of an apology by you. I am sure that it needs work, but you might want to base a real apology on it. 

Here goes:

“On June 10th I made comments that disparaged female scientists in mixed-gender laboratory settings. Those comments were wrong. My comments belittled women and diminished their roles - from intellectual equals to mere distractions. 

The comments went beyond “ill advised” to stupid. Worse yet was my original apology in which I tried to use the time-honoured excuse of bullies everywhere: “It was just a joke.” That also was wrong.

Scientists are not emotionless robots. Research laboratories are like any other setting in which people work closely together for long periods of time. Interpersonal relationships take place. They can range from petty jealousies, rivalries and even hatred to lifelong friendships and yes, even love. And while I referred to some of these situations as “distractions” the truth is that they are nothing of the sort - they are human beings being human, and it is these relationships that make any workplace, including research labs, dynamic and exciting places to work. 

My comments caused offense. That is not only clear, but it is also right - my comments should have caused offense. Singling out people based on their gender was no more acceptable than if I had singled out people by their race, beliefs or sexual preferences. By singling out women I made science appear hostile towards women.

 

I was wrong. And for that I apologize. 

 

I want to be clear - I welcome women in science. Not simply because the more diverse the people in science the better we can explore the universe, but because it is the morally right thing to do.

I hope that something good can come of my (stupid) remarks. I welcome the discussion of sexism in science that it has begun, and I urge everyone to focus on the real issue instead of the actions I have brought upon myself. Discuss not only the obvious biases that hold back women, but also the unconscious, “implicit” biases that we all - to varying degrees - share. It is obvious that I have such biases, and I am working to explore and remove them - I hope that my mistake will cause each of us to do the same. In so doing I hope that we as a community can remove the barriers that keep women from achieving their rightful role as equals in both science and in society. I hope that I can play some positive role in this in the future.

My comments were wrong. They were inexcusable. I  apologize for the insult that I caused, the hurt that I caused, and the harm that I have done. I am truly sorry.”

I do not claim to be the best writer in the world, and the apology above may not be perfect, but I hope that Dr. Hunt can see his way forward to saying something along this vein so that we can remove the negativity from the conversation and move on to the real problems - implicit biases and casual sexism in science and society.