One of the world’s most distinguished scientists resigned from his post at a top British university on Thursday after his comment that the presence of “girls” in the scientific lab leads to romance and tears when they are criticized.
Nobel laureate Tim Hunt stepped down as an honorary professor within the life sciences faculty at University College London after his comments to senior female scientists and journalists sparked a firestorm of condemnation.
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Hunt told the audience at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea on Tuesday, according to people who were present.
“Three things happen when they are in the lab … you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”
During his talk, the 72-year-old British biochemist also voiced support for gender-segregated laboratories before adding he didn’t want to “stand in the way of women.”
His comments were first posted to Twitter by Connie St Louis, the director of the Science Journalism program at City University, London, who was at the conference.
“Does this Nobel laureate think we are still in Victorian times?” she wrote.
Hunt told the BBC in an interview after his comments went viral that he was deeply sorry if they caused offense.
He said it was stupid to make such statements in the presence of so many journalists and claimed it was intended “as a light-hearted, ironic comment” that had been taken seriously by his audience.
But rather than retracting what he said, Hunt admitted he “just meant to be honest, actually.”
“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” he explained. “I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it's very disruptive to the science because it's terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.
“I found that these emotional entanglements made life very difficult.”
There has been a long-standing problem trying to recruit women into science, technology or engineering industries in many nations, including Britain. Research by Wise, which campaigns on the issue, found that women make up half of the British workforce but only about one-fifth of jobs in this sector.
Some female scientists reacted by posting photos of themselves in head-to-toe baggy white lab suits alongside the hashtag #distractinglysexy.
Hunt’s comments were also widely condemned by influential organizations he was affiliated with. They suggested the statements did a huge disservice to gender equality.
In a statement confirming Hunt's resignation, University College London said: “UCL was the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men, and the university believes that this outcome is compatible with our commitment to gender equality.”
Hunt, a graduate of Cambridge University, also resigned from the Royal Society, where he was elected a fellow in 1991 for the Biological Sciences Awards Committee.
The Royal Society called his comments “so disappointing” and said it “believes that too many talented individuals do not fulfill their scientific potential because of issues such as gender discrimination, and the Society is committed to helping to put this right.”
Hunt was awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 2001 with Leland Hartwell and Paul Nurse for their discovery of protein molecules that control the division of cells and has been awarded a string of accolades throughout his distinguished career.
He became a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1991 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006.
Boyle is a special correspondent.