“The Trouble With Girls In The Lab”: The Unacceptable Costs Of GBV In Science

Written by: Dr. Imogen Coe

In 2015 there was a global uproar in response to the words of Dr. Tim Hunt, a British Nobel-prize-winning biochemist who said that “The trouble with girls in the lab is that you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry..”  This was not an alleged statement, uttered behind closed doors and immediately denied. Dr. Hunt freely admitted to the comments.  Further, he defended himself by claiming it was all a joke, he had been misunderstood and was being unfairly treated (“victimized”) by the subsequent intense backlash.

Much has been written about the exclusionary culture of the sciences (sometimes lumped together as STEM -science, technology, engineering and math) to women and to marginalized groups such as BIPOC, members of the LGBTQ2S+ community and people with disabilities. There is ample data from around the globe (e.g. UNESCO, OECD) that demonstrates a disproportionate over-representation of men in STEM disciplines and medicine, particularly at the higher levels, in leadership positions and positions of power.  There is also a lot of research on the culture of STEM and recommendations on how to increase participation and representation of humanity in these areas.  In the US, a major report in 2018 from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, found that 58% of women in those disciplines had experienced some sort of sexual harassment.  This level of harassment was second only to levels reported by women in the US military (over 60%).  Harassment was defined as verbal and nonverbal behaviours that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender, unwanted sexual attention (verbal or physical unwelcome sexual advances, which can include assault), and sexual coercion (when favourable professional or educational treatment is conditioned on sexual activity). Harassing behaviour could be either direct (targeted at an individual) or ambient (a general level of sexual harassment in an environment).

We do not, in Canada, have the same level of formalized reporting of incidents of gender-based violence in STEM but we can expect that levels are very similar.  Indeed, Canada is the context for perhaps the most heinous act of gender-based violence against women in STEM that has ever been committed; the targeted murder of women pursuing education and careers in engineering at Ecole Polytechnique in 1989.  Over the last 30 years, engineering has begun to grapple with it’s unwelcoming culture by limiting misogynistic activities during frosh weeks, by engaging male students with workshops on healthy masculinities and with targeted supports for diverse engineering communities.  We must go further to ensure that all forms of gender-based violence are removed from STEM.

What can student service professionals do? 

  • Acknowledge the issue of GBV in STEM is real.  The data are there.  The stories are there.  Learn and listen.  Be aware of the “it’s just a joke, you misunderstood” death by 1000 cuts nature of GBV in STEM.

  • Be aware that science students may be at risk as a consequence of the way science is conducted. Laboratory work and field work required for certain courses or graduate programs can involve long hours in restricted or remote locations, sometimes with limited supervision.

  • Hierarchical structures (e.g. TAs supervising undergraduates, professors supervising graduate students) can lead to significant power imbalances with unclear reporting lines and consequences for inappropriate behaviours.

  • Conferences, particularly events where alcohol is present, are well known for being high-risk situations for students.

  • Be aware that professional scientists (both male and female) are often unaware of entrenched bias because their identities are strongly tied to the concept of objectivity.  Scientists are also unaware of the social science and research on issues related to gender, GBV, bias and hierarchies of power.

  • Work towards cultures of care by supporting those who have experienced GBV but also by promoting bystander training, healthy masculinity training, core competencies training and expect resistance because this work is new and unfamiliar in STEM.

The great educationalist Dr. Myra Sadker, who raised awareness of gender-based biases in the educational system in the US, once said, “If the cure for cancer is in the mind of a girl, we might never find it”.  We, collectively, in Canada, cannot afford for GBV in STEM to exclude any talent, wherever it comes from.


Suggested Citation: Coe, Imogen. (2020, August). “The Trouble With Girls in the Lab”:  The Unacceptable Costs of GBV in Science. Courage to Act.

Dr Imogen Coe Headshot (1).jpg

Dr. Imogen Coe

Dr. Imogen R. Coe was the Founding Dean of the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University. Imogen possesses a doctorate (Ph.D.) and a masters degree in Biology from the University of Victoria, B.C. and a bachelor’s degree from Exeter University in the U.K. She is an affiliate scientist with Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, Keenan Research Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital which is where her research program is located. She is an accomplished cell biologist and is internationally known for her work on membrane transport proteins (transporters) that are the route of entry into cells for a large class of anti-cancer, anti-viral and anti-parasite drugs. She has served on NSERC, CIHR and NCIC scientific review panels and continues to supervise research projects of undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research associates in her group.

Imogen also serves on the Board of Directors of the Michael Garron Hospital (formerly the TEGH) and the Canadian Mining Innovation Council. She is a member of the Executive Advisory Council for Champions for Change, an initiative of FIRST Canada also serves as an advisor to hErVOLUTION, a non-profit organization working on access to innovative education and employment services to girls and young women in STEM.

Imogen is well known for her promotion and advocacy on equity, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She is considered to be a Canadian thought leader in this area and is a highly sought-after speaker and panellist on the topic. In 2016, she was announced as one of WXN’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada, in the Sunlife Financial Trailblazer & Trendsetter category.

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