The trouble with girls: how bias creates barriers for women in the workplace | Weatherhead

The trouble with girls: how bias creates barriers for women in the workplace

Posted 6.24.2015

While speaking at a conference for Science Journalists on June 8, 2015, Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize winning scientist from the University College London, said, “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 criticize them they cry."

Because of his comment and the public backlash, Hunt was forced to resign from his prominent position. His comments demonstrate how gender bias continues to be a barrier to women in the STEM workplace.

There are three clear biases in Hunt’s statement. First, he refers to women scientists as “girls.” Next, he blames women for his own issue of “falling in love with them.” Finally, he rejects the emotional response of crying when criticized.

Like a Girl

Inexplicably, “girl” has taken on a negative connotation across our society. Both men and women use “…like a girl” as a put down or an insult. By referring to women scientists as “girls,” Hunt infers that women scientists are not as advanced as their male counterparts. Implying that girls cannot perform as well as boys is a broad-based stereotype that lacks any scientific proof; in fact, a study published by AAUW in 2010, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,” summarizes testing scores, grades and research which clearly show girls perform equally as well as boys in school in math and science. The reason girls do not choose STEM professions is because they do not believe they perform as well as boys.

In a bold move, Procter & Gamble produced a commercial that aired during the 2015 Super Bowl, titled #likeagirl. This commercial asked older teens, both male and female, to demonstrate throwing like a girl or running like a girl.  In all cases the older teens were mocking girls by running awkwardly or throwing haphazardly. When girls 10 years of age and younger were asked the same questions, however, they threw hard and ran hard. In their own words, they ran like themselves.

As children reach puberty, “like a girl” transitions from an objective description of one gender to an insult used to humiliate another person. Research shows that girls’ self-confidence plummets during puberty.

Our own studies show that most professional STEM women have encountered work place biases and that women in STEM have lower levels of self confidence than their male colleagues. Our findings show that the higher a STEM woman’s confidence, the more likely she will persist in her profession.

I Just Can't Help Falling in Love...

The second “trouble” we find in Hunt’s words are that he blames the women in the lab for his habit of “falling in love” with them. Hunt’s off-handed comment, intended to bring a laugh, passes off any sort of responsibility for emotional self-control and diminishes women’s presence in and contributions to STEM fields, as if now that women have earned their academic degrees, all they are after in the lab are their Mrs. degrees.

Cry, Cry, Cry

Finally, Hunt’s trouble with tears. There are two possible issues at work in this statement: either Sir Hunt has a bias against showing emotion in the workplace, or the kind of criticism being dealt is so harsh that it leads women to cry. I have given performance feedback to dozens of men and women throughout my career. If provided in a respectful manner with the intention to help a person develop, criticism can be delivered without anyone—male or female—crying. Is criticism that reduces anyone to tears really necessary in today’s workplace?

Here is our advice to Hunt and any other person working with professional women:

  • Stop referring to women professionals as “girls.”
  • Take responsibility for your own feelings and treat co-workers as professionals, not as objects of desire.
  • Crying in the workplace is no more of a problem than laughing in the workplace. Be empathetic when giving feedback to all employees.  There are ways to provide feedback that is not criticism and will not make another individual cry.


In response to Hunt’s comments, women scientists all over the world shared photos of themselves and other famous women in STEM fields on Twitter, with the hashtag #distractinglysexy.

Thanks to Hunt’s public confession to falling in love with the “girls” in the lab, we are all now falling in love with the women scientists around the world who are making a difference, in spite of their distractingly sexy lab coats and rubber gloves. It is this kind of self-confidence and public attention to what women in STEM fields are contributing that will continue to encourage young women toward careers in STEM.

Sir Tim Hunt and others like him have consciously or unconsciously used these biases to create barriers for women, not just in the sciences but in every profession. He has suffered severe and some say unfair consequences because of his comments. But for many years women in science and other STEM professions have suffered due to the biases of the influential. The University College London took appropriate action and it is our hope that these types of stories can help to remove biases in the workplace for professional women in STEM.


Kathleen Buse, PhD, is an adjunct professor in the Department of Design & Innovation at the Weatherhead School of Management and instructor in Executive Education's Leadership Lab for Women in STEM, a program designed to help women make the most out of their careers in STEM fields.

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