On women in Science and Medicine

Domhnall MacAuleyDomhnall MacAuley is a CMAJ Associate Editor and a professor of primary care in Northern Ireland, UK

 

Perhaps too slow, perhaps too nervous, but now that the London Times has spoken out in an editorial, I feel I can say openly that I too believe Professor Tim Hunt was treated badly by his university and some of the media. His ill-considered joke about women scientists- “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”- was, without doubt, a poorly thought out off-the-cuff attempt at humour by a 72 year old man of a different era. It should have been simply dismissed as antediluvian. The world-wide response by female scientists, in a superb demonstration of ironic self-mockery, was the perfect antidote. Paradoxically, Professor Hunt’s remarks, and the global reaction, did much to raise our awareness of women scientists and bring their achievements to everyone’s attention.

There was a serious dimension, however, that was lost in the uproar; that romantic relationships within a workplace sometimes happen and may be destructive if not handled carefully. Similarly, science cannot flourish in an environment devoid of critical evaluation so, irrespective of any gender implications, it’s important that scientific work is open to critical appraisal. Men cry too, but the male-clichéd stereotypical response to criticism is arguably worse- that they resort to violence or drunkenness. For me, the immediate social media furore achieved little more than the belittlement of a Nobel Prize winner, and it was women scientists themselves who won the day.

So, what of medicine? As both my grandmother (q 1921) and mother (q 1952) were high achieving medics, I have no qualms about singing of the success of women doctors from the rooftops. And, marriage to their medical class mates does not appear to have held them back either. In our own general practice, I often argued that our women partners were the best thing that happened - they did most to change the way we worked and alter our traditional male 'macho' approach to workload. In a medical profession where an increasing proportion of practitioners are female, it is also great to see women taking their places at the top of so many specialty organisations and, having been brought up in a household where the Medical Women’s Federation played a major part, I’ve been fascinated to see how the need for such an organisation has now almost completely gone. Indeed, in some areas of medicine, men may soon feel the need for an advocacy group. As for my own family of three daughters, I wish them success in their chosen professional careers, and that they will flourish, not because of their gender, but because of merit.

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