Define handmaidenesque?

Martin Luther King once said, “On some positions, Cowardice asks the question: ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question: ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question: ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question: “Is it right?”  Connie St Louis – Guardian 2013

So begins Connie St Louis’ first article on the subject on the subject of sexism in science for the Pulitzer Prize winning Guardian newspaper.

It seems unlikely that St Louis spent much time reflecting on the wisdom of Dr King’s advice before submitting the final draft of her second, the somewhat uncharitably titled: Stop Defending Tim Hunt.

In light of recent developments, her choice of quote in an article about sexism in the scientific blogosphere seems a tad ironic. I’m not certain that she would agree with me but then again, based on everything I’ve read about Connie, it seems possible that we would have very different opinions about what might reasonably be considered to constitute ‘irony’.

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Connie St Louis

For anyone unfamiliar, Connie St Louis is the Academic that sparked The Tim Hunt Kerfuffle after accusing him of spouting blatent and inexcusable sexism in front of an audience of approximately 100 female science journalists.

The story was mana from heaven for anyone in Britan’s free press who wanted to push the Government sponsored women in STEMM agenda, lament about #everydaysexism in the workplace or just take a pop at men generally and elderly gentlemen with protruding nasel hair in particular.

The Guardian alone generated over 20 articles on the subject in the week the story broke and then provided a platform for St Louis to have another go at Hunt in round two of the feeding frenzy.  This occurred after a few high profile figures in the world of science decided to put their head above the PC parapet and dare to suggest that the media’s reaction to the allegations had been somewhat disproportionate and, dare I say it, even a tad hysterical.

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This is what science looks like (according to Connie St Louis)

The first thing that struck me about St Louis’ article was, under the circumstances, how down right vicious and unsympathetic it was to both Hunt and his wife.

After an empty apology and then declaring that “he stood by his comments”, Hunt has taken the spotlight and somewhat self-indulgently allowed it to remain focused on him.  Connie St Louis – Guardian 2015

Something that some of the initial 1000+ readers commenting below the line also happened to notice was the Director of Science Journalism’s extremely poor use of grammar throughout.  Which in turn lead to a rather hasty episode of ‘live editing’.

I have never seen commas abused in such a variety of ways in so short a stretch of prose.  I can only imagine that the subeditor who failed to correct them is secretly signalling to readers what they think of the writer. Seafog 

Only under duress did The Guardian eventually add an acknowledgement that changes had been made, even then they were somewhat disingenuous about the extent of editing that went on.

For example, St Louis initially described the Observer’s revealing interview with the couple as ‘handmaidenesque’, whatever that’s supposed to mean.  When the ‘People’s Editor’ responded to criticism levelled at the article he failed to acknowledge that this discription was removed, let alone shed some light on what sort of message Connie St Louis was trying to convey.

After all the ‘live editing’ a number of crucial inaccuracies remain, even after they had been uncovered as such:

Hunt now claims he added the words “now seriously”. He did not say this, nor did he praise the role of women in science and in Korean society. I wish he had; things would have been so much better.  Connie St Louis  – Guardian 2015

Like so much of St Louis’s claims (not to mention her CV), her insistence that Hunt didn’t praise the role of women in science or attach some sort of  ‘now seriously’ caveat to his poorly judged joke have both been disproved.

Realistically no matter how thin you slice a thing there are always two sides to a story and neither Hunt or St Louis come out of this situation with their reputations fully intact. That said in my humble subjective opinion, only one of them has been the victim of sex discrimination.

The observation that girls cry could potentially be perceived as negative stereotyping in the context it was made and the suggestion that scientists should be segregated by sex would fairly obviously be offensive to many if, that is, you could convince them that the person calling for single sex labs was being remotely serious.

Anyone working in 21st century Britan should have a reasonable understanding of both their rights under equality legislation and how to assert them, not least someone with a duty of care for students in their faculty.

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This is not what 4th Wave Feminism looks like

Accepting that not everyone might feel comfortable challenging the perceived behavioir of an esteemed Nobel Laurate in a room full of their peers, if St Louis felt so strongly about the behaviour she believes / claims she witnessed then the professional and ethical thing to do would have been to raise the matter with the conference organizers and allow due process to follow.

Even though it increasingly seems that the vast majority of people in the room weren’t remotely offended by what Hunt said, this doesn’t mean that St Louis and a few others, like Deborah Blum, don’t have the right to be.

UK Sex Discrimination law (covering both employment and service provision) proposes that when it comes to possible violations of dignity, it is not a person’s intention that is key to deciding if their behaviour is offensive, it is whether or not said behaviour could be reasonably be considered to be offensive (once all relevant circumstances and information has been taken into account, obviously).

Personally I think that, on this particular occasion, we’re clearly delving into the murky realms of political correctness, where some people find it professionally expedient to dwell in glass echo chambers when they’re not throwing sticks and stones at other people.  That said, given the way some of the conference organisers have conducted themselves, it seems possible her perception might even have been entertained and given the dignified way Sir Tim has conducted himself throughout the entire kerfuffle, it seems likely that he would have extended an unreserved apology for any offence caused, however unintentional.

Instead she pushed the story into the press on her own terms and, for whatever reason, presented it in the way that she did.  The fact that so many professional journalists and academics were so quick to believe her says much about the extremely one sided nature of identity politics when it comes to sex.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this entire story is that, even if you won’t read it in the Guardian, Connie St Louis actually got called out for so obviously exaggerating her already unlikely tall tale of the sexist scientist and a room full of polite journalists who were shocked into silence.

Again, St Louis and EYE may disagree but the most ‘ironic’ thing about this sorry tale is that while St Louis was making busy portraying her critics as a torrent of over privileged men, it was mostly members of the  sisterhood that were diligently digging and patiently separating fact from fiction.

Goodness knows what she was really thinking when she said what she said but, in the absence of any kind of apology, it’s hard not to perceive Connie St Louis as the real sexist in this story.

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This is what ‘Diversity’ looks like (according to Connie St Louis)

Not only did she leverage the incident to lobby the Royal Society to appoint their next chair from a woman only shortlist (something which is illegal under current UK law) but even, as the rest of the world is catching up with the truth, she has stubbornly stuck to her story and even tweeted a ‘perfect & correct‘ comic book rendition of events which presents a disturbingly dubious vision of diversity and depicts her, as quite literally, walking over Hunt as she leads the charge for a new breed of female scientists.

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This is what ‘Equality’ looks like (Connie St Louis style)

If Connie St Louis genuinely wanted to write about why so many women are reluctant to pursue science careers she could have.  Instead she quoted an elderly man out of context, attempting to portray him as some sort of misogynistic monster and it’s absurd for her to claim that she did so in an effort to shine a spotlight on ‘the enormous inequality experienced by women in science‘.

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This is what Sir Tim Hunt looks like (according to Connie St Louis)

Speaking as someone who refuses to give up on humanity, I find it hard to believe that St Louis doesn’t have some regrets about the way she’s represented female scientists, even if she refuses to admit it publicly.  Maybe some good will come out of the whole kerfuffle but sadly it won’t be the last.

I’ll finish with a quote from St Louis which pretty much sums up why I started this blog and why I am unlikely to run out of material to write about any time soon.

It’s a reflection of what’s happening in our society that people think that they can make these sort of comments and get away with it.  Connie St Louis – Guardian 2015


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