Confessions of a Postdoc (24): Watch What you Say...

(July 28th, 2015) Since 2010, Anjana Nityanandam has shared her inner thoughts, experiences and feelings that come with being a postdoc. Here are her latest insights into the world of a research scientist that many are probably all too familiar with.

In the aftermath of Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s outrageously sexist comments about ‘girls’ in the lab, the one thought I could not shake was, ‘Did he actually think he could say something like that in public and get away with it?’

Now it turns out that the comment was meant to be a joke, possibly referring to himself and his own personal experience (I believe he fell in love with his wife, a fellow scientist, while in the lab). That may be true, may be not, may be damage control. Whatever the case, the result was that he did not only  have to resign from his position at UCL, but the guy’s entire career, his accomplishments, his reputation as among the crème de la crème of the scientific world has been tarnished. All because of a silly, dumb ‘joke’.

As this sequence of events unravelled, I’ve been hearing two arguments. One is that it is not acceptable to make a sexist ‘joke’. This is an issue women (and men) around the world are fighting tooth and nail against, and joking about it inadvertently lends credibility and validation to those who harbour such archaic beliefs. In this case, a nod to those who actually believe women are unfit and incapable of performing cutting edge scientific research. On the other hand, is it possible that we are living in an age where every single comment, every single opinion you dare to express in public is vulnerable to being taken out of context, scrutinized incessantly and blown out of proportion?

Let’s look at these two viewpoints closely. Jokes that are racist, sexist or prejudicial are believed to be funny (by a select few) because they are usually an exaggeration of a stereotype. The danger with such ‘jokes’ is that if you find them funny, its either because you make light of troubling issues like racism and sexism and don’t take them seriously, or worse still, you actually do believe the stereotypes to be true. The concern with a comment like that made by Tim Hunt, even if meant to be innocuous, is that it essentially ends up validating the regressive, bigoted, and in this case misogynistic beliefs of that latter group of people. If someone of the stature of a Nobel Laureate says it, even if trying to be funny, there must be some truth in it.

Alternatively, those that don’t take these issues seriously, continue to think they are not serious enough to not be made jokes out of. You cannot possibly think that a comment that’s derogatory, demeaning and outright offensive to half of the world’s population is hilarious! I don’t think anyone would find jokes about slavery or the holocaust amusing. Some people need to think hard and deep about what they consider ‘funny’, and maybe also spare a thought to what is acceptable to be said in public, and what is not. No one can punish them for the way they think, but maybe exercising basic human decency on a public platform, will make them less intolerable.

However, if people go after (and I mean in a brutal, relentless career-ending way) anyone who voices an opinion or cracks an unfunny joke, without delving into the context, in which the comment was made, we might end up discouraging people from speaking up altogether!

Assuming that Tim Hunt was only kidding, maybe some of us should have taken a minute or two to find out why and in what context he said what he said, and then, decide to bash him up, his character and reputation? This is an issue I keep witnessing repeatedly. People are quick to jump to conclusions and bring down anyone they disagree with. In most cases, the responses are justified because the comments are outrageous. But often enough, the reactions are disproportionately abrasive to the instigator. The Hunt episode aside, why do people think hiding behind a computer screen affords them the freedom to be as disrespectful and spiteful as they wish?

Take, for example, a recent case where an actress got trolled relentlessly and mercilessly on twitter for criticising an initiative started by the Prime Minister of India to raise awareness about female infanticide. People abused her, her husband and daughter, called her a prostitute and questioned if she had been sexually abused as a child! All this because she expressed a legitimate opinion about one of the most horrific issues to plague Indian society today?

I do understand that this is a very fine line to tread. We want to be able to express our opinion, have a voice and shout down the bigots and the naysayers. But is it not possible to express your difference of opinion without extreme emotional outburst? Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely despise regressive attitudes, and would never condone actions or words pertaining to the same. But when it comes to the way we react to others’ opinions, even if hateful and bigoted, where do we draw the line, the line between rationally but aggressively responding to someone’s moronic rants versus using unrepeatable expletives targeted at the individual and their family? How is the latter any different from bullying? Although, I must point out it’s not always this bleak. We are not all that bad. The outpouring of kind words and support for Laura Bassett following her gut-wrenching self-goal that cost England a place in the FIFA women’s soccer world cup final, are a testament to our civility.

As scientists, we are not impulsive people. We are programmed to think rationally, to explore, analyse and be thorough before making conclusions. Although we are defensive of our own data, we are also accepting other’s results and hypotheses. Rather than be outright dismissive, most of us would first critically analyse the data contradicting ours, before commenting on its shortcomings (or merits). If we disagree with someone, we tell them we disagree and then the reasons why. We don’t trash them, rip them apart and attack their credibility as a fellow scientist (mostly). My hope is that we extend this attitude to how we react to people’s comments and actions in everyday life outside the laboratory. And I wish everyone else would do the same, too.

On a different note, Tim Hunt’s comments got me thinking. Discrimination against female scientists is not unheard of. There are accounts of investigators hesitating to hire them, not because they think women are incapable of working in a lab, but because of the apprehension that in contrast to men, women would cost the lab more time and money, if and when they decide to start a family. In fact, some go as far as to enforce the appallingly dated ‘rule’ that as long as employed in their lab, female scientists are forbidden to start a family, and in some cases, even getting married!

In the United States, where salary during a maternity break is voluntary and at the discretion of the lab head, the latter are often unwilling to compensate fully. As if being a female scientist and balancing career with family wasn’t challenging enough, such arcane and unfair practices skew the playing field for us. But that’s a topic for another day. It’s an issue that merits its own independent piece. For now, I will state the obvious, for the prejudiced and the misinformed. Female scientists are as smart, rational, efficient and productive as their male counterparts. And sexist comments about them are never funny and never acceptable. Period.

Anjana Nityanandam

Last Changes: 09.11.2015