Do You Have to be a Man to be a Woman in Science?

Hanaa Hariri

Hanaa Hariri

In June, we all read the news about the Nobel laureate, Sir Tim Hunt, who told a conference of science writers in Korea about what he described as “the trouble” with “girls” in science. “Three things happen when they are in the lab:” Hunt said, “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” Within hours, his remarks unleashed a series of responses from women as well as men in science. The most interesting response of all, I found, was a series of photographs posted by women scientists at work: some in full-body suits, some wearing filter masks, and some collecting samples from the field or under harsh conditions, all with the hashtag #distractinglysexy.


My first response was these pictures were both smart and true. Even if you don’t have to wear any special uniform or exert a lot of physical force to do your experiments, even if you are just sitting at your desk all day working on a paper or a grant application, reading literature, preparing a talk or planning an experiment, this is enough to make you feel exhausted and completely consumed and thus anything but “distractingly sexy.” But maybe in an attempt to defend ourselves and prove Tim Hunt wrong, we were unconsciously solidifying, in my opinion, an even worse misconception about women in science. I couldn’t help but wonder: Can’t women be feminine and still compete fiercely with men in the science field? Or do we have to be men to be women in science?


The truth is that Tim Hunt is not the first to view women in science as a distraction. The famous French physicist Pierre Curie (1859–1906) also wrote that “women of genius are rare” and that “by exuding vicieuse sexuality” women draw men “away from dedication.” Despite his self-caution, Pierre Curie fell in love with Marie Skłodowska who came to him looking for lab space and scientific expertise, and married her. In 1903, Pierre and Marie Curie shared a Nobel Prize in Physics in “recognition for the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena.” Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and remains the first person and only woman to win it twice.


The fact is, many people look for potential partners who resemble them. They seek someone who shares their passions in life, their dedication, and their dreams. Therefore, it is only natural if not probable to “fall in love” with a colleague. As described by Barbara Goldsmith in Obsessive Genius, her biography of Marie Curie, “Pierre’s understanding of how much science meant to her touched her far more than any talk of love.” In return, according to Goldsmith, Pierre Curie saw in Marie a genius who “understood his nature and his soul.” In a letter to Marie, Pierre wrote: “It would be a fine thing …… to pass our lives near each other, hypnotized by our dreams: your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream, and our scientific dream. Of all those dreams the last is, I believe, the only legitimate one. I mean by that that we are powerless to change the social order ….. From a scientific point of view, on the contrary, we may hope to do something; the ground is solider here, and any discovery that we may make, however small, will remain acquired knowledge.” (I have to say that this is the clearest and most organized love letter I have ever read.)


Still, as part of the global effort to eliminate gender bias and discrimination against women in science, we find ourselves obliged to respond to accusations like Tim Hunt’s. But perhaps—dare I even say it?—there is an ironic truth here. I know of many examples in history as well as in my own experience in science of men and women who do “fall in love in the lab,” and who go onto work together in the same company, the same research institute, or the same university.


Yet the fact that such couples are common in science does not contradict the reality that such relationships are not a constant cause of distraction in the lab. On the contrary, strong relationships based on common interests and goals are a source of motivation and support especially in science where a nonscientific partner can sometimes have difficulty understanding how demanding and time consuming a research career can be. Indeed, an increasing number of academic institutes and industries are making it easier to hire couples.


Perhaps a more appropriate response to the Tim Hunts of the world would be that women can be as devoted to scientific research as men (if not more so). They can be focused on their experiments, and at the same time, they can look their best (even if it lasts only for the early portion of the day), and fall in love with a fellow scientist every once in a while.

About the Author:

Hanaa Hariri is interested in the relationship between a protein structure and cellular function. She studied COPII vesicle biogenesis using cryoEM during her PhD with Scott Stagg at FSU, and she is currently working on characterizing the roles of PXA protein domains in lipid metabolism and disease during a postdoc in Mike Henne's lab at UTSW Medical Center.