I have fallen in love and cried at work

Tim Hunt, a nobel laureate, thought it would be appropriate to tell the attendees at a meeting honouring women in science that labs should be segregated because “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!” Twitter has responded brilliantly to this by flocking to the hashtag #distractinglysexy with pictures of women in science doing their thing. Alas, most of my science is done behind a computer, which isn’t even slightly distractingly sexy, so I don’t have a picture of my own to share. Many people have discussed why Tim Hunt’s statement is inherently false in its sweeping generalisation. I would like to add my own account, having done all the things he says makes the workplace untenable, and show why it doesn’t matter.

Like a lot of people in all kinds of occupations, I fell in love with a co-worker. We noticed each other, took some time to realise we were on the same wavelength, and then decided to do something about it. Even when I was crushing, without any idea he felt the same way, it did not affect my work. Just like crushing on someone outside of work, or a celebrity, these human emotions do not at all inhibit my ability to perform my job. There are plenty of people, men and women, who unfortunately have to deal with relationship problems. Hell, I spent a year of my Bachelor degree taking care of my terminally ill father, which is about as distracted as you can get. Men’s problems do not miraculously go away when men enter the lab. Both men and women can be affected by personal issues, in a way that affects their work. This does not make them bad scientists, it makes them human. Besides, having a few women around the office (who are allowed by (frankly outdated) societal norms to show emotions) to talk to about your situation can be quite a boon for the males, as I’m sure many will agree!

As for unreciprocated office romances (which again are in no way unique to science), I have seen a few in my time, and if anything it made the scorned party work even harder, become even more productive, and did not at all affect working relationships. The only time one-sided love can become a problem is if the person with romantic feelings (I won’t assume male *coughTimHuntcough*) is in a position of power and tries to use that to leverage the other person into reciprocating. That is what one would call sexual harassment, and just plain wrong no matter what gender does it.

Nice rack

The good thing about the Tim Hunt debacle is that it highlights how funny women in science are!

As for his last assertion, that women in science cry when you criticise them: I have cried, once at work, not because I was criticised but because I was hugely disappointed and basically screwed over by another person, who because they did not do something they promised to do unnecessarily delayed the end of my PhD (this was after a few such instances and quite near what was supposed to be the end, so the very last drop in quite a full bucket). Luckily my male primary supervisor was incredibly understanding and supportive, and generally a much better role model than Tim Hunt could ever be! I know other PhD students who have cried for similar reasons, not because they were criticised, but because they were so passionate about their research that they could not stand someone else tripping them up out of pure carelessness. It is a feeling of powerlessness that probably most PhD students experience, the only difference being that women are told from a very young age that a valid response to this is crying, while men are taught instead to punch a wall or get angry. Neither of these responses is particularly productive, and more importantly does not change anything about the quality of work (as my many publications will attest), but just shows that people are invested in the science they are doing, which is a good thing!

As for women who do respond to criticism by crying (I don’t personally know anyone that does), I’m guessing their response is more healthy than men who respond to criticism by shouting and cursing. After a woman has stopped crying, she can reflect on what the criticism meant and better herself. After a man has cursed out the person delivering criticism, he has burned a bridge and due to inherent privilege might even go on believing that he was right regardless of what the reality of the situation may be (not all men, obviously, just like not all women cry, but I know some men who do act like this, who are luckily not in science). As some others have also pointed out, maybe if women cry after you criticise them, you need to change your approach, at least if your goal is to help instead of merely hurt.

Whew, this became a bit of a longer rant than I intended. My point is that yes, not all women in science behave like Tim Hunt thinks they do, but that even if they did, that doesn’t have any effect on the quality of their work. If anything, mixed workplaces are better for everyone, no matter what field one works in, because it allows one to experience different perspectives and learn how to be a well-rounded member of society comfortable talking with everyone in a friendly and professional manner regardless of gender etc.

The multitasking writer

I’ve been writing pretty consistently every day since I came up with a great new idea for a novel (sometimes as little as a few sentences a day, but hey momentum is momentum). Then last Thursday I found out about a contest on Wattpad set by Margaret Atwood, to write a short story either set in 2114 or as advice to 2114. I only had a weekend to write it (the deadline is midnight tomorrow GMT, you still have time to enter!), so I reluctantly had to set my novel aside for a few days. And now I have to find a way to get back into it.

Some people can write two stories at the same time, some can edit one while writing another. Most newbie writers can/should focus on only one ‘universe’ at a time, since the deeper you manage to delve into your universe, the richer the story should be, and that’s hard enough. I’m certainly not nearly confident/experienced enough to be able to switch between story-worlds within a day. I’m struggling to get back after even a few days in another world. Like writing itself, such abilities require practice. Since working on multiple stories counts as a form of multitasking, I suppose I as a woman and a relatively young person should be better at it.

Also part of another great blog post about multitasking

“Multitasking” Not sure how much more I’d actually be able get done with extra arms.

Yet if you look at multitasking from a neural perspective, there’s no such thing. Yes, we can walk and talk at the same time, but that only works because we only do one of those things consciously. The brain has limited resources, and especially tasks that require higher order cognitive processes take up a lot of these resources. Just like a computer, a brain doing two or more things that require higher cognitive resources is constantly switching between the tasks. We don’t actually do these things at the same time. This is why it’s so dangerous for people to do other things while driving; if something unexpected happens during those few seconds the brain dedicates to looking at one’s phone, a delayed reaction would occur that could be catastrophic.

Women’s brains might be able to switch quicker, because they’re wired differently or because of differences in upbringing or both, hence the myth of the kickass female multitasker. Modern young people have shown however that practice is the best way to learn how to switch more rapidly and make it seem like you’re doing two things at once; given the constant attention-sinks that are smartphones, tablets and TVs, young people have learned how to disperse their attention between all of their devices while still remaining sane. They sometimes even spare some resources for actual human conversations. And though this is bad for attention spans, it certainly helps them process things more quickly and be more adaptive to changing circumstances. It’s a great example of how our brains adapt to the new environment created by advances in technology and science.

The brain is like a muscle. Practice strengthens the connections required to flex our creative skills. There has to be a balance between being able to switch, and being able to go deep into one particular story; both of these skills need to be nurtured. There might be some select few writers who have these skills from the get-go, but I’m willing to bet that if you ask Margaret Atwood, Stephen King or Chuck Wendig, they will tell you they had a lot of practice before things clicked. So right now I am, not entirely willingly, practicing switching between story-world while maintaining clarity about the story and characters. Hopefully one day this will allow me to edit one story while working on the next. It’s probably one of those things that separate the professionals from the hobby-writers, and I know which one I’d rather be.

If anyone is interested, you can find my hastily-written short story here.