Affect and the Office

By Kate Gilchrist
Much has already been written about the comments made by Nobel Laureate scientist Tim Hunt about his experience working with female scientists at the World Conference for Science Journalists in South Korea on 9th June. He has been widely castigated for his sexist, heteronormative and discriminatory remarks. He swiftly resigned from his various posts as honorary professor with the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences and at the Royal Society. While he has since apologized and claimed the comments were made as a ‘joke’, the whole episode, and the reaction to it, has revealed some interesting gendered ideas about the workplace.

Just in case you didn’t catch the full story, here is a brief recap. Hunt was speaking at a session, ironically sponsored by some of Korea’s leading female scientists and engineers, where he stated that although he didn’t want to ‘stand in the way of women’ within science, he was in favour of single-sex laboratories for three reasons. He said that working alongside women in the lab was bad because: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

So, say we take him at his word that Hunt was joking. He nevertheless in the process of telling his ‘joke’ demeans women by referring to them as ‘girls’, placing them in an infantilized, non-professional position. Furthermore, the fact that he makes these comments in just about the most public place possible (a gathering of journalists), to an international delegation (who could easy misinterpret such nuances) speaks volumes as to his sense of superiority and inability to view his comments from a another’s perspective. To think that he (in his position as a male scientist, speaking to a room filled with leading female scientists about their advancement within the field) thought it could be suitable to joke about such matters, and broadcast it to the international press demonstrates this inherent sense of confidence, superiority and lack of foresight. Even if, as he claims he didn’t consciously appreciate how his comments would be received, the very fact that he didn’t demonstrates how entrenched and internalised these sexist attitudes are.

Whilst his comments also directly reinforce a heteronormative view of the world, assuming as they do that all relationships within the lab would be heterosexually orientated, it is his comments on crying and emotion which I’d like to focus on. The most prominent response, which represents many, came from a predictable source. London Mayor Boris Johnson swiftly weighed in on the matter by picking up on the comment about crying. To quote Johnson, as reported in the Guardian:

“Sir Tim Hunt was doing what he had done all his life – pointing out a natural phenomenon he had observed. …. Johnson said it was a scientific fact that women cry more readily than men, citing the work of Professer Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, and maintained that it should not be an offence to point out a “gender difference”.

Johnson finished by calling for his reappointment at UCL and the Royal Society. I find it breathtaking that a politician in such a prominent, highly influential position such as the Mayor of London can get away not only with repeating such comments but supporting and reinforcing them. There have been no calls for Boris’ resignation, or even a retraction, despite the fact that he extends gender discrimination beyond the scope of the science industry and into every workplace in the country. Actually, Johnson’s claim that women cry more in the workplace has been refuted by the very same scientist he referred to. Professor Ad Vingerhoets has counteracted that his most in-depth study into the matter found that men were more likely to cry at work.

But this brings me to a wider point. Frankly I don’t care whether men or women cry more in the workplace. I don’t think such gender-binary reinforcing debates help any of us. I think that it’s the devaluing of crying, similarly feminised emotions such as empathy or anxiety – or indeed any emotions ­– in the workplace which should be addressed. The idea that we become some kind of entirely objective, rational, non-feeling, almost mechanised creature as soon as we step into the office is essentially the embodiment of some kind masculinised ideal of a rational, unemotional, wholly ‘logical’ being. It’s nonsense that we are ever completely cut off from our emotions – even a state of dispassion or disinterest is still a form of emotion. Meanwhile mild displays of masculinised emotions such as anger or determination, pride or (suitably orientated) aggression are celebrated in certain (unsurprisingly masculinized) workplaces such as the trading floor. The film The Wolf of Wall Street is a case in point – workplaces, like any other social location, are emotionally driven. I’m not saying we should all be crying non-stop at work, I’m saying we should realise that no-one ‘removes’ or erases or blocks out all of their emotions when they are at work and the idea that we can or should is bizarre and unnecessary. We are emotional, social beings, and the denigration of ‘feminised’ emotions, in contrast to the celebration and elevation of masculinised emotions, wherever it occurs, should be called out for what it is.

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