“You’re far too pretty to be interested in maths!”

It’s been an odd week for me.

I’ve spoken to some amazing physicists and engineers, learned a huge amount of new stuff and made some plans for the future. But it’s not all been shiny and positive.

A few days ago, I was on the tube, en route to visit TfL’s traffic control centre (and yes, I promise to blog about this soon!). It was mid-morning, so it was pretty quiet, and I was sitting down, reading a paper about traffic modelling. There were equations and graphs, and I was scribbling notes to myself on the margins beside them.

I was aware that the dude sitting beside me – around 40 years old I reckon – was reading over my shoulder. This is totally fine – everyone does it on the tube. But I became aware that he was trying to engage me in conversation, making shuffly, coughy noises some people make when trying to get someone’s attention without actually saying anything. I’d love to say that I turned toward him with an open, smiley face, but I didn’t  – London makes you deeply suspicious of people who randomly chat to strangers on tubes. Sad to say, but it’s true. Anyway, I made somewhat side-eye-contact with him and the dude said the following words:

“Can I just say something? You’re far too pretty to be interested in maths!”

I shit you not. My initial response to this was a boiling, silent anger. I have no idea how long I stared at him (let’s call him The Moron, TM), but judging from the reaction of the dude sitting opposite me, my face was like thunder. The Moron was grinning at me during this silent stare, but that began to wane eventually. Here’s how the next bit went:

LW: Are you serious? Did you hear the words you just said?

TM: What?! It was a compliment!!

LW: Em no. It was an incredibly patronising, assholey comment.

TM: No it wasn’t

LW: You basically insulted everything about me except the way I Iook – that is NOT a compliment!

TM: All right love, calm down             (…that was a particularly special moment)

LW: Seriously dude. You need to step away from the 1950s. Asshole.

And I packed up my stuff and walked down to the other end of the carriage, shaking with rage. There are many things I wish I’d said instead – I’m so much more eloquent and sharp-witted after the event – but it was the best I could do without resorting to physical violence. I cannot express how much this annoyed me at the time. Even now, typing this, I can feel my heart racing. I am just perplexed that people like The Moron exist. I guess I’m lucky in that most of the people I deal with on a daily basis aren’t morons, or at least, don’t demonstrate moronic tendencies publicly.

And then Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt went and said something unbelievably stupid and  offensive.

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”

He carried on digging a hole for himself, but I think that’s enough for now. I’ve actually spent some time with Tim, whilst in my job at Nobel, and we got on very well indeed. There were barely the tiniest shades of the attitude that he’s now made headlines for – basically, he used the word ‘girls’ instead of ‘women’, but when I called him on it, he corrected himself. So, really no worse than I’ve experienced with other senior academics. But that’s the thing, I guess. With these comments and his later half-apology, it unveiled an attitude that I thought / hoped had long gone from academia. No-one is shocked that another old white dude turns out to have retained incredibly outdated views. But as someone who inspires scientists and non-scientists the world over, his comments (even about not-science) carry extra weight & so were  damaging, no matter his intention. In no way could his comment be described as “humorous” – misguided and patronising? Yes. Funny? No.

However, this issue goes way beyond Tim Hunt – there is absolutely no point in demonising him – but this a great reason to re-ignite the broader conversation. We must all work hard, every day, to establish a culture of gender equality in science, as Science Grrl Director Anna Zecharia so eloquently explained to BBC today. I highly recommend reading this piece – it might open your eyes to a few things (and no, just because you haven’t personally experienced sexism does not mean its not real).

Comic interlude: There has been a rather wonderful response to this on Twitter – have a look at #distractinglysexy to see real women in STEM, doing their work, not crying and neither tempting their colleagues nor fighting off hoards of suitors.

Sexism really does exist in science, but I’m hopeful that it’s an increasingly rare occurrence. Part of the reason for this is because we’ve all (men and women) become much better at recognising it and calling people out on it. And we must continue to do that, again and again, until it has been eradicated. Simple 😉

My closing comment is especially for The Moron and people* like him:

Its 2015. Women have voices, and we will use them. You’re very, very welcome to join us, regardless of the shape your genitalia – we just want a more equal world for everyone. If you don’t join us, that’s your choice. Just know that you’ll be left behind. And you won’t be missed.

* I say people very specifically here because (as I hope is clear) this is absolutely not a man-bashing exercise – to paraphrase many a politician, some of my best friends, and biggest supporters, are men. This is simply about equality, nothing more. Unfortunately, there are plenty of both women and men who think that feminism is dirty word. Screw ’em.