PR 101: Don’t say anything you don’t want to see in print

Well this is a first: I’d like to be a scientist for a day.

More specifically, I’d like to be a biochemist working on protein chemicals alongside Nobel laureate Tim Hunt. Not because I’m interested in physiology, mind you, but because I have a long list of distracting co-workers that I’d like to invite to our research lab and drive him nuts.

If you don’t get the joke, allow me to explain. At the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul this week, Tim Hunt said: “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 criticize them, they cry.” He went on to suggest that labs be segregated by sex, so as to help minimize “distractions.”

Oh, I hear you, Tim. I know all about distractions. At my first job in New York, I worked alongside a woman who treated our shared cubicle like the set of her one-woman Broadway show. Every morning, she’d waltz in humming to whatever was playing on her iPod and change into what looked suspiciously like a pair of tap shoes. Then, because I never asked, she would announce what she had done since I had seen her the night before – a monologue made exponentially more annoying because she insisted on singing the last word of every sentence.

“We got pi-zzaaaaa!” she would warble. “So glad it’s the week-eeeend!!”

broadwayOften, when she left our workspace, she would grab the corner of our cubicle divider, pivot on the ball of one foot and execute a small kick with the other as she swung into the hallway.

As much as I loved this literal song-and-dance, it was nothing compared to the way she picked up print jobs. Even now, eight years later, when I hear the sound of a printer warming up, I look up and half-expect to see her, with a level of joy that rivaled a child on a swing set, push her chair away from her desk, raise both feet in the air and sail backwards toward the printer with one arm outstretched. I lived for the days when she slammed into the wall.

I lasted mere months in that seat before I asked the office manager to move my desk. The official reason I gave was that the smell of her perfume gave me a headache — a complaint that the manager accepted readily. “Say no more,” she said. “It would make me absolutely sick to sit there.”

Things got better after that. My new cube-mate, a man in his early 20s, had a habit of singing Pitbull while chewing ice cubes. Once, while performing an over-zealous chair spin during a rousing rendition of Krazy (feat. Lil John), he kicked over his computer tower and broke it. Even still, he was like a monk compared to Broadway Baby — though I must admit that I enjoyed her performances far more from a distance.

Fun as it may be to walk down memory lane and lament a working world that combines open floor plans, millennials and reggaeton, I have to get back to Tim Hunt. So allow me to be serious for a minute.

I’m glad he said what he did. Because he all but confirmed that some men really do want to box women up and get them out of the workplace. And he proved that we have a lot of work to do to make our labs and offices and schools a little better for the ladies in them.

Roll your eyes all you want, but before you do please re-read his statements and consider this: 1. Those comments were made in front of an audience of female scientists and reporters; 2. They were made by a man who is, by all accounts, absolutely brilliant and wildly successful; 3. Even after a spectacular amount of backlash, he stuck by his idea — though he added that he was “really sorry” for it… and admitted that it was “a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists.”

Put another way, if he’s comfortable expressing those thoughts in public and justifying them later, then how many others silently agree and make subtle moves to shut women out in the name of “eliminating distractions”? Certainly not all men think that way — but some do. And that’s a real problem.

Normally, I’d offer to stop by the University College London with a few of my former cube mates and prove a point. But I understand Mr. Hunt already resigned from his position as honorary professor.

And that has me doing high kicks.

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  1. I think his idea is brilliant. It makes perfect sense to spend limited resources on creating segregated labs. Also, it seems he doesn’t believe people attracted to the same sex can do science. That’s probably true, right? His plan is far better than, say, teaching people to be professional in the workplace. Have you seen his photos?! Every woman is gonna want some of that. Plus he’s a self-described chauvinist. He’s the perfect man!!!!! I’m sorry; I’m getting emotional. Before I start crying, let me say that your former coworkers sound amazing.

    • Excellent points, all of them. My personal favorite is when he laments how foolish he was to make said remarks “in front of all those reporters.” Again, right on point. Right on. Thanks for reading – really appreciate it!!

    • She was hysterical. Truly. Years later, I once went into a restaurant that was full except for two seats at a communal table that were right next to her. I turned around and walked right out. Then, I spent the next 20 minutes imitating her to my boyfriend. When I was done he was like, “Well I kind of want to meet her now!”

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