Oh dear.

Poor Sir Tim Hunt.

He thought it was a joke, apparently. Something light hearted, to raise a titter. I’m wondering how enormous the lack of self-awareness of this Nobel prize winner must be for him to have continued in this vein for five minutes in the face of an audience that clearly could not believe what they were witnessing.

Then he got on a plane back from South Korea and his comments were pinged around the world and made the subject of newspaper articles and radio interviews and Twitter pile-ons. I haven’t been on Twitter much today but there’s a #distractinglysexy hashtag full of women scientists being quite snarky about their ability to prioritise their work over falling in love with their colleagues. Presumably too, male colleagues can also fall in love.

As usual it’s the woman’s fault if men fall in love with her, just as much as it will be her fault for falling in love with a male colleague. If, however, she acts in a professional way and DOESN’T fall in love, then there’s bound to be something wrong with her. She’s obviously a frigid bitch or a ballbreaker or some such epithet.

There are plenty of men in the world who use the same logic to force women to cover themselves lest men, who seemingly are not in a position to control their own behaviour, are distracted by them. This does seem to the be the logical conclusion of Sir Tim’s call for segregated labs: let’s penalise women by covering them up; shutting them away and pretending they don’t exist. If they therefore can’t compete with us for jobs, then that’s mere coincidence.

I don’t want to go into it further here except for speculating that it’s him that has trouble with women colleagues and he deals with this by rationalising it into comments such as this.

The charge will be levelled that women are humourless and can’t take a joke but lines like this are symptomatic of a wider attitude. Yes, it’s just one silly-arse, arrogant old man saying these sorts of things, but how symptomatic is it of people at this level all across society?

Just last week the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi expressed his pleasure that the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina was tough on terrorism, “…despite being a woman.” Just one silly-arse man eh? Or are these attitudes among the men in charge so prevalent that society simply accepts them and they think they can make these throwaway remarks unchallenged?

If someone in such an eminent position is allowed to get away with this sort of thing it sends a clear message that these views are tolerable, that we prefer a bit of eccentricity “Oh, that’s just him,” to women being able to do their jobs to the best of their abilities without stupid irrational obstacles based on ridiculous stereotypes being placed in their way.

Then came the news that Sir Tim had resigned from University College London, whose statement made clear that his comments were incompatible with their gender equality ethos.

How easy it is to clamour for a resignation! Someone does something wrong and people demand their head on a pole at the Tower of London. I don’t think I approve of forced resignations any more than I approve of trial by Twitter or Twitter pile-ons. I confess I made my fair share of snarky comments first thing yesterday morning but my complaint was with the behaviour rather than the man.

You see, when someone is forced to resign and escape the glare of publicity over their faux pas, they escape the resultant public scrutiny too, don’t they? They can just hole up in their holiday home in France or go back to their lab and, though it’s usually a step back for their career for a while, nothing really changes. They are still the same person and their behaviour stays the same. If anything, they feel defensive and under siege and continue to hold the opinion or behave in an even more abhorrent way. No sunlight is allowed in onto their self-justification to force them to examine the impact of their views.

My preference would be for people to stay in their post, receive some training and try and rectify the damage they’ve done both to the institution they represent and more widely. Isn’t it better to take responsibility for one’s behaviour and try and put things right?

The first step, in my book, would be mandatory training in the issues faced by, in this case, women scientists in their career progression, in being taken seriously at work; in sexism and discrimination based on stupid, outdated stereotypes; in difficulties with combining work and family. Serious issues, all too often conveniently ignored by people who make these sorts of flippant comments.

It seems odd to me that University College were unaware of the views that Sir Tim so vocally holds dear to his heart. Why on earth was a self-designated “male chauvinist pig,” allowed to address such a forum if he was only setting himself  (and his employer) up for ridicule and, eventually, to lose his job? Surely a gender equality policy requires training in what this means in terms of an employee’s responsibilities towards their colleagues and their employer and, in such high profile cases, their status as a role model?

It has been suggested that perhaps people deemed eminent are excused from such training which they might consider patronising. Perhaps the organisation is too intimidated to insist that they attend. What is the point of having gender equality policies that are only mandatory for some employees?

People higher up the career ladder are more in need of training to help them appreciate the need for a diverse team and of the contribution of people from a variety of backgrounds. Precisely because they have done well is why they have an enhanced need for an imagination about why others from different backgrounds haven’t.  As usual, education and imagination are the answer and we can all benefit from learning about people not like us.

But I doubt whether those hounded to resign by an indignant mob will ever see things in those terms.