The scientist and broadcaster Professor Brian Cox has said it was wrong the way a Nobel laureate scientist was “hounded out” of his university posting over controversial comments he made about women working in laboratories.
Prof. Cox said the remarks by Tim Hunt had been “very ill-advised” but that the response – which saw him give up positions at University College London and the Royal Society – had been “disproportionate”.
His intervention came after London mayor Boris Johnson said that Mr Hunt deserved to be re-instated after the “over-reaction” to his comments.
The 72-year-old scientist provoked a backlash on social media after he reportedly said the “trouble with girls” in laboratories was that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry”.
He subsequently apologised for the comments – made at a conference in South Korea – saying they had been intended to be jocular and ironic, but said that he was told that if he did not resign his position at UCL he would be sacked.
Prof. Cox acknowledged that while there was a “serious issue” about the “perceived air of sexism” which deterred some women from pursuing careers in science, he said that he did not believe Mr Hunt should have been treated in the way that he was.
He said that he was “good person and a great scientist” and that as a man in his 70s, it was “perhaps not surprising” that he was “slightly unreconstructed”.
“You can make the argument that senior figures in science have to be first of all aware that there is a central problem of women progressing up to the highest levels of science and secondly therefore have to be mindful of that and careful of their language,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.
“On the other side of course, there is the wider problem of trial by social media. People do make ill-advised comments from time to time so is it appropriate to hound someone out of their position at a university or indeed is it appropriate for the university to react in the way UCL in this case did and ask someone to resign or threaten to sack them?
“To have a Nobel Prize winner – and by all accounts a great scientist and a good person – being hounded out of a position at UCL after all those years of good work and science, I think that’s wrong and disproportionate – with the caveats I mentioned.”
Prof. Cox acknowledged that there were problems in getting girls to take up careers in science and engineering and “big problems” when it came to career progression for women that needed to be addressed.
“There is a problem in science and engineering and the problem is that we don’t have enough women going into certain areas, particularly engineering,” he said.
“In America and Europe around 50% of PhDs are women so that’s good. But if you look at senior positions in universities and on committees, about a fifth are occupied by women so trying to address that is a sensible thing to do.”