A new normal

I have a few thoughts that I have not seen discussed in the whole Tim Hunt storm.

In case you have not been keeping up, you can read here a first hand account of Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s comments at a lunch at the World Conference of Science Journalism by the journalist who broke the story.

Basically he said that women (actually, he said “girls” – how often do you hear grown men referred to as boys? How demeaning! ) are fodder for love and they cry when criticized. Never mind the love aspect, because, of course, love takes two. About the crying…


For one, it is OK to cry. It is not only OK to have strong emotional responses (i.e. one that might lead to crying in a professional setting), it is probably a good thing. Yes, there is a place for emotionless analytics in science, but there is also a need for passion. One can feel that passion, the highs of science and the lows, and yes, even cry, and still have room for unbiased careful science.

Bringing varied emotional intensities is also an aspect of diversity (not only related to women versus men, but also different cultures which may have different emotional norms). While diversity can cause friction (because isn’t it easier to make decisions with someone who is more likely to agree with you?), studies have shown that workplace diversity is good for productivity (Exhibit A and B) and innovation. This may be because simply having different perspectives allows multiple different ideas to come to the table. It may also come from the friction – having different ideas forces discussion. If everyone in the room doesn’t agree with you, you will have to do more to back up your claim.

So, differences = good.

Now, who is different? If you have two things that are different from each other, they are both different. But people tend to label one as “normal” and all others as “different. And of course, given the history of men and women in science, male behavior is currently considered the default behavior.

It does not have to be this way. It has not been this way in every society (even today). So in an age when, as a society, we are moving toward enlightened views on gender equality, it is time to drop the assumption that male behavior is normal and everything else is a variant. No, you should not need to feel “Oops” for crying at work. Or, in reverse, someone who has never cried after being criticized should feel self conscious for lacking that emotional response.

In a related note, a spin on the concern that Tim Hunt’s comments will discourage women’s interest in science: If we react to his comments by saying — I’m stoic like a man, I don’t cry! — we reinforce the idea that one needs to be like an “average” man to succeed in science. That will discourage people who don’t feel like they can be like that or don’t want to be like that. There are many examples of successful women, but we don’t always hear about their unique struggles. Or men that don’t fit this stereotype for that matter. Maybe this is a good opportunity for successful people to put it all out there.


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5 Responses to A new normal

  1. saraswatiphd says:

    Oh this is just so good! I relish the way your presented how “if two things are distinct from one another, they are both different.” Such a thoughtful, clever post. Great job!


  2. An Interested Party says:

    Thanks for your post. I like it, but I want to give a different perspective on crying.

    I am a man living in the United States, and that puts me in a subculture where crying is understood to be a scream for help. It means “Everything is terrible! Help me now!”, and it is a thing you do only if you can’t do anything else. It’s an SOS klaxon.

    (As an example, if my memory isn’t failing me: The last time I cried in public was over a family death, and the time before that, I was in middle school.)

    Looking from that perspective, if crying is an alarm, what are the right responses? If you hear someone crying, and you believe the alarm is genuine, then you should immediately drop everything to help the person sounding the alarm. If you hear the alarm but don’t believe that the alarm was sounded in good faith, then you’re left in a very awkward position; it’s comparable to dealing with someone who’s dialling 911 over nothing.

    Now, my wife has explained to me that there are other subcultures where crying means something different. In her world, it’s not a klaxon, just something you do when you’re frustrated or unhappy. I gather you are from that subculture, since you link crying to “strong emotional responses” rather than to life-ending disasters. I think that’s a fine sub-culture to be in, and unhappiness is a fine thing for crying to mean, but I think that difference explains the conflict here. It’s not that men are stoic and non-stoic people are bad, it’s that there’s disagreement about what crying signals.

    I think for there to be more peace about crying, some sort of understanding needs to be reached. Perhaps women can explain to men that crying isn’t an SOS. Maybe men can explain to women that it sure sounds like an SOS (hey, that’s what I’m doing!). Maybe some sort of common ground can be reached. But saying “men shouldn’t shame women about crying” is, I think, addressing a symptom rather than the cause.


  3. anonG says:

    Great post! I agree that we need to get over being embarrassed about the whole crying thing — there are more important things to worry about. Personally, I’d rather see someone cry at work than some of the obscenity-shouting, fist-pounding behavior that seems to be regarded as perfectly acceptable — if executed by a man, of course. How often does a man’s ability to lead get seriously questioned on the heels of such a display? I’ve never seen that!

    @An Interested Party: I appreciate your perspective, but surely you’re astute enough to be able to understand that crying does indeed have different functions and different meanings, depending on context? But in case you need it: no, crying isn’t always an SOS. It sounds like your wife has already explained this to you but you refuse to accept it, for some reason. So what more do you need? Or are we good now?

    Liked by 1 person

    • An Interested Party says:

      @anonG: What part of “I think that’s a fine sub-culture to be in, and unhappiness is a fine thing for crying to mean, but I think that difference explains the conflict here” sounds like I’m not astute enough, or that I refuse to accept things?

      But, well, of course you’re right that I don’t understand what I wrote, so thanks for re-explaining to me. Sorry to have tried to say why men respond in the way they do; it clearly wasn’t the support you were looking for.


      • anonG says:

        To try to frame this as a “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” issue completely misses the point. Crying is looked down upon because we — men and women alike — live in a sexist society that regards behaviors typically associated with women as inferior. It has nothing to do with your ability to correctly interpret someone else’s reason for crying or not. And FWIW, your experience is not typical of the men I know — something you might want to keep in mind when proclaiming that you speak for men.


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