Sexual Harassment Is No Joking Matter

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

In 2015, Tim Hunt, an English Biochemist and Nobel Prize winner, announced at a women scientist’s lunch in Korea that women scientists should not work in the same labs as men. Connie St. Louis, a lecturer in science journalism, immediately tweeted his comment as follows: “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 criticize them, they cry.” The conservative publication Breitbart International immediately starting investigating and said that the comment was a poor joke and that St. Louis had taken the comments out of context. Breitbart said that she had omitted the sentence that preceded the statement:“It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists.” Breitbart also claimed that after the “joke,” Hunt said, “Now seriously. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.

“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 criticize them, they cry.”

A few days later, Hunt apologized but said that he meant the “part about having trouble with girls.” He said: “It is true. 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. I’m very sorry that what I thought were light hearted ironic remarks were taken so seriously, and I’m very sorry if people took offence. I certainly did not mean to demean women, but rather be honest about my own shortcomings.”

Wikipedia cites this as an example of public shaming. But Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley biologist counters this label:

When I am thinking about what happened here, I am not thinking about how Twitter hordes brought down a good man because he had a bad day. I am instead thinking about what it says to the women in that room in Kashmir that this leading man of science – who it was clear everybody at the meeting revered – had listened to their stories and absorbed nothing. It is unconscionable that, barely a month after listening to a women moved to tears as she recounted a sexual assault from a senior colleague and how hard it was for her to regain her career, Hunt would choose to mock women in science as teary love interests.

In a 2018 New York Times poll, 19% of men fifth admitted to engaging in other harassing behaviors.

Jugla K. Patel, Troy Griggs, and Clair Cain Miller, We Asked 615 Men About How They Conduct Themselves at Work, New York Times, Dec. 28, 2017)

The White Ribbon Campaign in Canada offers advice to women who are assaulted by sexual jokes: Challenge them. Here’s their suggestions:

  • “Hey man that’s actually not very funny. Too many guys joke about rape when rape is a traumatic event and a violent crime. Joking about it kind of makes us forget what it really is, and how serious it is.”

  • “Would that be funny if it was about your mother / sister /daughter / girl friend / wife?”

  • If no one supports you and you are told to “lighten up” you can simply say “I still don’t find it funny. Would you be as comfortable telling a joke about people of colour or Jews?” This is especially effective if there are men from different cultures and backgrounds in the room.

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