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“The trouble with girls” – three lessons from Sir Tim Hunt’s humiliating fall from grace

2nd September 2015

When distinguished scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Sir Tim Hunt, fell on his sword earlier this year and resigned his professorship at University College London, it was hard to feel sorry for him. OK, it was only one ill-judged comment. But how ill-judged.

Speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists (the clue is in the title and begins with J), he described his “trouble with girls” in laboratories: "Three things happen when they are in the lab,” he said. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry."

He later admitted he’d been really stupid. Well, quite. It’s difficult enough to encourage schoolgirls to study science without their fearing they’ll be treated by their male counterparts as irrational and overly emotional cry-babies.

Here are the lessons that any spokesperson can learn from Sir Tim’s downfall:

  1.        If you hold politically incorrect views, keep your mouth shut. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that talking about “the trouble with girls” in a professional setting will cause outrage, and that journalists will therefore report it with glee. I can’t believe that Sir Tim really thinks that women (or “girls” as he describes them) are as disruptive to scientific research as his comment suggests. But if he really does, then he should keep such views to himself.
  2.        Stick to the truth, but don’t give the whole truth. Sir Tim says he was just being honest. But speaking at a conference, as he was, is not like speaking in a court of law where you have a moral obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth (as you see it) and nothing but the truth. In the court of public opinion, especially with journalists present, only the first and last need apply. I have to caution about one in ten of my media trainees about being too honest. Like Sir Tim, they tend to volunteer negatives and assertions that can be used against them. Yes, you have to deal with negatives if you’re asked about them, but don’t volunteer them. Imagine, for example, that someone invites you round to dinner and clearly has put a lot of effort into making a meal that you consider to be completely revolting. Do you announce to your host that their food is inedible? Of course not.
  3.        Use humour very carefully. Sir Tim meant his comment to be “light-hearted and ironic”. But a comment quoted in black and white in the newspaper the next day rarely looks light-hearted. Norironic. It looks deadly serious. As Gerald Ratner discovered a generation ago, it’s easy to get a laugh at a conference, but you might very well end up being the butt of your own the joke.  If in doubt, leave humour out.

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