Tim Hunt, who was awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 2001, said his comments had been intended as a joke.
He reportedly told the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea: “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 criticise them they cry,” he said.
The Royal Society distanced itself from Hunt’s comments, which had sparked a backlash online.
Hunt told the BBC his comments were meant to be humorous, but added: “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.
“I found that these emotional entanglements made life very difficult. I’m really, really sorry I caused any offence, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually,” he said.
Hunt became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1991. Ten years later he was awarded the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine alongside Lee Hartwell and Paul Nurse for their discoveries of “key regulators of the cell cycle’’.
The Royal Society said Hunt’s comments did not reflect its views.
Hunt said he was “really sorry that I said what I said, it was a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists’’.
“What was intended as a light-hearted, ironic comment apparently was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Defending his remarks, he added: “It’s terribly important that you can criticise people’s ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth.
“Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.”
Hunt reportedly described himself as a “chauvinist pig” and argued in favour of single-sex laboratories at the talk in South Korea.
Connie St Louis, a lecturer in science journalism at City University, was in the audience when Hunt made the remarks and described the experience as “awful”.
She told Today: “It wasn’t funny, what he was saying, at all. What he was saying is that women should be separated from men in the laboratory, he was saying that when feedback is given to women they cry all the time, then there’s always complications about love.”