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#distractinglysexy (by Inger Mewburn)

Posted 21 July 2015 by Paul Clifton (NTEU National Office)

I always write my Advocate columns at the very last minute. This month I’m so glad I did, otherwise I would not have been able to reflect on the social media storm #distractinglysexy. 

For those of you who have been, I don’t know, actually working this week and not reading the social medias, the famous Nobel Prize winner Professor Tim Hunt got up at the world conference of science journalists and did the verbal equivalent of shooting himself in the foot – or was it the head? 

Hunt, who apparently knows he has a reputation for being ‘a bit of a chauvinist’ spoke in favour of single sex labs and told the audience of JOURNALISTS that his trouble with girls was that: 

‘… 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.’
www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/10/nobel-scientist-tim-hunt-female-scientists-cause-trouble-for-men-in-labs

Apparently his speech was greeted with polite applause, so he initially didn’t think anything was wrong. Clearly he wasn’t on Twitter, where the outrage was in full flight and the mocking had begun. 

Female scientists started posting pictures of themselves in all kinds of unglamorous outfits and situations with the hashtag #distractinglysexy. The photos reflected the everyday life of a working scientist and perfectly demonstrated the folly of Hunt’s remarks. Some women posted pictures of themselves hugging machines which they claim to have fallen in love with, or posted safety diagrams warning men that lady tears might be a slip hazard.

What happened next was interesting. 

I thought the relevant institutions would have to be shamed into taking action, but Hunt was swiftly asked to resign from prestigious positions at both the University College London and the Royal Society. You can’t help wondering if his ‘reputation as a bit of a chauvinist’ was coming back to haunt him. Management can be well aware of the bigots inside their operations, but often lack the grounds to take action because the people who are victimised remain silent. Everything changes in the full glare of the media spotlight. Justice, however much delayed, can be swift and terrible. Hunt was apparently dismayed and bewildered by the shit storm he created. 

In my view Hunt should have learned to discipline himself way before this happened. Perhaps if he’d encountered enough outright rebuffs from his casually sexist comments things might have been different the other day in Korea, but I’m not surprised he didn’t. People are usually polite, especially to Nobel Prize winners, and it’s hard to speak back to power. 

Actually - it’s just hard to speak back.

Just the other week I was running a workshop where a couple of 55+ men made a series of sexually charged ‘jokes’. There was uneasy, embarrassed laughter from the class, they looked to me for guidance, but I froze. Inside I was 10 years old again, feeling outraged by a boy snapping my bra strap, then calling me ugly when I told him to stop. 

I was 13 again, listening to the boys behind me cataloguing who was hot and who wasn’t and enduring the mocking laughter when I asked them to stop. I was 16 again, mentally preparing myself to be verbally harassed by random men when I got on a train, or walked past a building site, or just basically existed in a public space. I was 18 again, listening to men at a party tell sexist jokes. ‘What’s wrong, don’t you have a sense of humour?’ they would say if I didn’t laugh right away, ‘you know that no one wants to screw a feminist?’

All these years in a female body taught me to say nothing, to back down, to avoid the fight. I’ve learned not to call out sexist behaviour, or draw too much attention to myself. I’m ashamed to say that faced with being mocked by a group of men in the classroom I did what so many women probably did when Hunt was developing his reputation as a bit of a chauvinist – I kept the peace by laughing it off. I turned the subject. I pretended it didn’t happen. I would love to say that from now on I will always speak back, but I know I wont. Change is hard.

I know many men worry that the workplace is becoming a politically correct minefield. Maybe it is – but that’s only because change is hard for everyone. Listening and asking questions are the first step. All men should listen carefully to the laughter of women. Does it come from the belly, or is it just polite? Does the woman look embarrassed and change the subject? If you are worried you’ve caused offence, just ask: ‘was what I said ok?’ If not, apologise. Try to avoid saying it again. There’s no need to become a hashtag. 

Dr Inger Mewburn does research on research and blogs about it. 

www.thesiswhisperer.com

@thesiswhisperer

This article appears in the July 2015 edition of Advocate.

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Advocate, July 2015

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