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Sexism in the workplace

The Tim Hunt affair created a furore and has thrust sexism at work into the spotlight. It is three weeks since the award-winning scientist made headlines at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea earlier this month when he said that the trouble with female members of staff in the lab is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry”.

The aftermath of this resulted in explosive outrage and a social media witch-hunt when his remarks were relayed onto Twitter by several of those present, including British-based science writer Connie St Louis. He delivered a non-apology on BBC radio but was still forced to resign. Perhaps he should have been given more of a chance to explain as now there are suggestions that his primary accuser may not be the most reliable of witnesses ? and that his employer, harrassed by a Twitter storm, may have been pushed into a decision.

By expressing views even in jest that comprehensively undermined his own reputation as a supporter of female scientists – this event has left many people wondering what would happen if they are themselves accused of making sexist comments at work.

Under the Equality Act of 2010, there is a long list of ?protected characteristics? for example: race, religion and sex which, legally cannot be discriminated against. Discrimination is, however, subjective, whether a comment is considered inappropriate is down to how the other person receives it. Therefore it?s possible to say exactly the same thing to two different individuals and have one take offence, while the other is not.

The surge of interest in this story shows how widely misunderstood the pressing need for feminist activism still is, particularly in the realm of science. According to the latest evidence, women occupy only 12% of jobs in science, technology and engineering. In research, women earn less, are far less likely to be promoted and win fewer awards to support their work. A third of PhD students are women, but only one in 10 professors. 


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