A new normal

Jul 02 2015 Published by under diversity, female scientist, tim hunt

I have a few thoughts that I have not seen discussed in the whole Tim Hunt storm.

In case you have not been keeping up, you can read here a first hand account of Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s comments at a lunch at the World Conference of Science Journalism by the journalist who broke the story.

Basically he said that women (actually, he said “girls” – how often do you hear grown men referred to as boys? How demeaning! ) are fodder for love and they cry when criticized. Never mind the love aspect, because, of course, love takes two. About the crying…


For one, it is OK to cry. It is not only OK to have strong emotional responses (i.e. one that might lead to crying in a professional setting), it is probably a good thing. Yes, there is a place for emotionless analytics in science, but there is also a need for passion. One can feel that passion, the highs of science and the lows, and yes, even cry, and still have room for unbiased careful science.

Bringing varied emotional intensities is also an aspect of diversity (not only related to women versus men, but also different cultures which may have different emotional norms). While diversity can cause friction (because isn’t it easier to make decisions with someone who is more likely to agree with you?), studies have shown that workplace diversity is good for productivity (Exhibit A and B) and innovation. This may be because simply having different perspectives allows multiple different ideas to come to the table. It may also come from the friction – having different ideas forces discussion. If everyone in the room doesn’t agree with you, you will have to do more to back up your claim.

So, differences = good.

Now, who is different? If you have two things that are different from each other, they are both different. But people tend to label one as “normal” and all others as “different. And of course, given the history of men and women in science, male behavior is currently considered the default behavior.

It does not have to be this way. It has not been this way in every society (even today). So in an age when, as a society, we are moving toward enlightened views on gender equality, it is time to drop the assumption that male behavior is normal and everything else is a variant. No, you should not need to feel “Oops” for crying at work. Or, in reverse, someone who has never cried after being criticized should feel self conscious for lacking that emotional response.

In a related note, a spin on the concern that Tim Hunt’s comments will discourage women’s interest in science: If we react to his comments by saying — I’m stoic like a man, I don’t cry! — we reinforce the idea that one needs to be like an “average” man to succeed in science. That will discourage people who don’t feel like they can be like that or don’t want to be like that. There are many examples of successful women, but we don’t always hear about their unique struggles. Or men that don’t fit this stereotype for that matter. Maybe this is a good opportunity for successful people to put it all out there.


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