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How to Rid the Science Lab of Sexism

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When Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, said last week that women in his lab tend to fall in love with him, and vice versa, I didn’t doubt that he was right. As a physics major at Yale in the 1970s, I developed crushes on nearly all my male professors.

I didn’t go on in physics, but I married, and divorced, a biologist. Many of my friends are scientists. I spent six years conducting interviews for my book The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club. And yes, scientists do fall in love with each other, just as lawyers, business people, and factory workers fall in love with each other, although female scientists may be even more prone to falling in love with their fellow scientists because laymen find them so intimidating. Distractions can ensue. Divorces. Sometimes lawsuits.

The solution is not, as Dr. Hunt (who has since resigned his honorary professorship at the University College London) suggests, to force female scientists to carry out their research in segregated labs. Such a suggestion, even in jest, could arise only from a point of view in which women are a distraction because men were here first. In the world in which Dr. Hunt grew up, women were a source of recreation during the rare hours when a man needed to get out of the lab and clear his head, or the source of the meals that appeared on his table when he rushed home to gobble down a steak before kissing the kids goodnight and rushing back to the lab. In that world, in which I also grew up, girls were conditioned to fall in love with any smart, successful man, no matter how flawed or homely (see Jane Eyre, Beauty and the Beast, or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”).

Thankfully, society is beginning to understand that the people who invent a game or build the playing field aren’t necessarily the most talented players of that game, or the fairest arbiters of who should get to play. As women have entered the workforce, corporations and universities have developed rules to deter employees from harassing or carrying on affairs with those they supervise.

For the most part, scientists who fall in love behave decently. But when distractions do ensue, the parties involved need to be able to sort out the complications. And scientists tend to be even worse than other people at discussing sex and love. You might be Captain Kirk at home, but you are expected to be Mr. Spock in the lab.

Of course, if you are straight and white and male, working in an environment created by people like you so people like you can work around the clock, thinking only about your research, you will be far less likely to need to bring up any disruptive topics. And yet, if the director of a lab isn’t able to recognize or discuss the illogical human needs of his students or employees, his lab will be inhospitable to nearly everyone.

Another of Dr. Hunt’s objections to women is that when he criticizes their work, they cry. This also is sometimes true. One talented female physicist told me that when she asked her advisor for encouragement, he raged that a graduate student should provide her own motivation. As he yelled, she began to cry, which aggravated him even further. The fallout from that one incident led her to drop out of graduate school.

Perhaps men are less prone to cry. Criticized by an adviser, they might wait until they get home to punch a wall or tear up in a partner’s arms. But if Dr. Hunt is making all these women cry, the men in his lab are probably miserable, too. The difference is that men tend to be conditioned to tough out unpleasant experiences, especially as relates to a career in science, and they receive more subtle forms of encouragement from their advisors, say, while hanging out in the men’s room or at the pub.

Knowing how to tactfully criticize someone’s work is a mentor’s job. And yet, few scientists are trained to teach or manage a lab. After spending years in monomaniacal devotion to their research, they find themselves in charge of multimillion-dollar budgets and a dozen or more employees. Some universities (including my own) require professors to attend workshops to familiarize them with the ways in which bias can affect hiring or promotion and seminars on how to mentor their students and junior colleagues.

But no amount of training will make ours a perfect world. Recently, Alice Huang, a biologist at the California Institute of Technology and a columnist for Science, provoked an outcry by advising a postdoc to shrug off her adviser’s tendency to look down her shirt. Of course Professor Huang should have made clear that the adviser’s behavior, though not grounds for a lawsuit, wasn’t acceptable. But I’m not sure what else she might have suggested. If the postdoc were to ask her adviser to stop staring at her breasts, he might become too embarrassed to continue their collaboration. She might persuade a female professor to speak to the adviser for her. But no matter who renders such a request, the results can be uncomfortable.

The photos that female scientists posted to the Web to protest Dr. Hunt’s remarks demonstrate that lab coats, HAZMAT suits, and goggles aren’t sexy.

But some female scientists do wear revealing clothes to work. Not long ago, a physicist complained to me that a job applicant had delivered a lecture in a shirt that exposed her midriff. She asked if she should have taken the woman aside and advised her that her attire was unprofessional. I didn’t know what to say. When I observe a graduate student teach a writing class wearing a very short skirt or a shirt that exposes her cleavage, should I tell her that the male undergraduates in the room are staring and making comments? Why, when I’ve never said anything to a male graduate student whose buff physique, exposed by a simple T-shirt, might be equally distracting? If a young man can’t concentrate on what his teaching assistant is saying because her midriff is bare, is that her fault, or his?

The world is a complex place. But banning women, romance, or emotions from the lab isn’t the solution. If everyone knows the rules for a workplace affair, if everyone has repeatedly heard that staring at a woman’s breasts is not OK, if everyone receives training in how to criticize a colleague’s work without causing him or her to break down in tears, if everyone feels free to bring up difficulties in his or her professional or private life before those difficulties deteriorate into crises that truly are distracting, then everyone might relax and do better science.