If we are going to make the progress that we must to overcome sexism in the workplace, we absolutely need people like Sir Tim Hunt.

Every time someone like him says or does something that inadvertently denigrates or offends (s)he offers every one of us the opportunity to make a difference. For the last 12 years my message about changing workplaces has been simple: you are accountable for that bit of the workplace that you create.  So come on!

Even since Sir Tim’s mishap I have spoken to a leader in another sector (also with dismal female representation stats) and in a firm where we’re engaged to make people think about changing things.  He described a very similar incident to Sir Tim’s that in turn sounded like a myriad of incidents routinely described to me through the years.  Then he asked seemingly rhetorically, ‘but what could I do?’  Of course, I told him what he could have done and what he should do now, but more of that later!

This incident happened at a sport based, work social event with a predominantly, in fact almost exclusively male audience. As the evening closed probably the most senior guest gave an impromptu speech of thanks containing some ill-judged, stories offered as humour.  The would be humourist was apparently sufficiently self-aware (as I’ve found many to be in similar situations) to offer an apology in advance for any offence that he may be cause the women present (not thinking that men like one telling me the tale would have a problem with his sexism).  You can imagine what happened next: embarrassed silence, lame applause and, … er … nothing.

‘Let’s move on’ is our typical response.  Sir Tim’s twitter firestorm happened only because he misspoke to female journalists.  As an aside, public speakers should not to be downhearted simply because their audience appears distracted and on their phones; at least not until they’ve seen what the audience has been tweeting about them!  Times change.

Times may change but it would appear that people’s limited appetite for effecting culture change doesn’t!

Intent, impact and talent

Before we talk about what you can or should do in ‘Sir Tim situations’, a few words to the apologists who are thinking and writing of Sir Tim, “but he’s apologised, it was a joke,  no-one was hurt, why are we making such a big thing of this?”  For me the answer is beyond simple; figures quoted in various journals suggest that the Stem (non-medical science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sector has women in only 9% of its positions and has an annual shortfall of some 40,000 graduate jobs.  The sector is critical to UK Plc’s innovation and growth.  Wake up and smell the coffee!  Forget fairness, just focus on demographics and talent.  Hugely respected scientists with Nobel prizes and enormous shadows (like Sir Tim) should be out there doing everything they can to attract the best talent to their industry – much of which will be female.  If I think about role modelling science careers I think Stephen Hawking who makes it appear so exciting and lacking in barriers to entry. He doesn’t even have a Nobel Prize!

On the question of intent, can people please grasp the simple truth that as in life, in workplaces whether you are a leader, a role-model or a colleague your impact trumps your intent every time.  Most of the people I have sat down with over the last dozen years to discuss the workplace problem they have (inadvertently) created has said some version of two things: (1) “It’s been taken the wrong way/it’s not what I intended” and (2) “I wish someone would have told me.”    This latter idea is particularly interesting in Sir Tim’s case.  Stem women that have appeared in the media over the last week defending him as a non-sexist and enthusiastic mentor of junior scientists have also used words like ‘eccentric’ to describe him.  Which to someone who analyses workplace problems and their gestation means that over the years Sir Tim will have offered numerous people (men, women, junior, senior) in various different settings the opportunity for a quiet word; “Tim, I know you’re not sexist and that was probably a light hearted comment back there, but can we just talk about how it could have been taken by some of the people who heard it.  You’ve got to understand that the more awards you get, the more people listen to you.”

My guess is that no-one has chosen to do that. If they have, I’d really like to hear from them.

And finally, ideas about what to do!

I’m going to use the work related social event rather than Sir Tim’s, because it is closer to the sort of thing I talk about every day.    As far as I am concerned, there is only one wrong answer.  Which is to do nothing.

The right answer could be one (or more) of the following :

  1. The public rebuke – stand up as the speech finishes and publicly thank the speaker and recognise his positive intent, but respectfully suggest that you personally would have preferred not to have the jokes.  Also set the context of intense competition for the best talent and the need (as is clear from looking round the room) to attract more women.  To that end all leaders need to think carefully about the environment they create.
  2. The quiet word – to approach the speaker shortly after he has finished and deliver a more personal (and less public) version of the above.
  3. Involve the most senior person in the room/someone you judge well placed to do something involved – either at the time or possibly after reflection, sit down with the person who arranged/sponsored the event or someone well connected to the speaker and explain that you felt uncomfortable and/or found the comments inappropriate and want to minimise any damage caused and/or ensure that the same thing does not happen again.

Obviously feel free to construct variations and/or combinations of the above, but do something! I have not suggested ‘going outside the box’, using formal procedures.  When you are trying to change culture and/or resolve issues, I always suggest staying inside ‘the box’, using the people who were there and experienced the incident to manage it themselves, bringing in what help they may require.

Remember too my recently published formula for giving feedback; it is necessary if we are going to change culture, it will be timely if you do it now (or soon) and whether it is done kindly depends very much on you.  Remember though, what we are saying to all the Sir Tim is, “I know you didn’t mean any offence, but you may well have caused it and please think about it”.

I think that this is possibly going to be easier for blokes to do than women, because there is less downside risk.  But that can wait for another blog.