Permission To Make An Arse Of Myself Please

This week I have been pondering on the fate of Sir Tim Hunt, scientist, Nobel Prize winner for his work on cell division and fellow of the Royal Society. Speaking ‘off the cuff’ at a conference in South Korea, Hunt made ill advised and silly comments suggesting that the trouble with “girls” in science is that they cause men to fall in love with them and cry when criticised. Although Hunt apologised for his comments (suggesting they were meant to be ironic and jocular) they were picked up on social media and went viral resulting in the 72 year old being forced to resign from his honorary post at University College London. A number of senior female scientists have come forward to say that Hunt’s comments didn’t reflect his practice and that he had in the past shown great support to young scientists, both male and female.

What struck me about this story was how fragile our reputations are. An ill-advised word or action can quickly take a momentum of its own, impacting on both our personal lives and our careers. There are some great examples of social media holding people to account for their actions – see for example the coverage of police brutality in America – but how can years of exemplary and highly valued work be brushed aside as the result of 5 minutes of arrogant hubris on the other side of the world? Surely we are all allowed to make mistakes, to acknowledge and apologise for those mistakes and move on?

Technology and social media really do mean that the world has shrunk – that ill-advised words or actions can be captured, replayed, commented on and magnified. Reputations can be shattered, professional personas destroyed: a hurricane of comments doing their damage and then moving on to the next victim. Gossip on an international scale. How do we protect ourselves from that? I know the rubbish that comes out of my mouth sometimes – I am tired, I have miss-judged a situation, I have spoken without thinking – I would be mortified if those lapses had been captured and played out to the world. But I don’t want to lead a bland, un-opinionated, silent life, where thoughts are left un-verbalised and ideas unexplored. I want permission to make an arse of myself – to learn from that – and to move on – without leaving my reputation and my life’s work in its wake.

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