Finding the frame: how 37 words diminished five decades of success


By Kristin Johnson

Thirty-seven words sparked global outrage last week: 

“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.”

Tim Hunt, a British biochemist with a 51-year career in scientific research, owns these words. His distinctions include a Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work on cell cycles, and the conferment of knighthood by the Queen of England. Speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists last week, Dr. Hunt had an opportunity to further distinguish himself among his peers. Instead, in 37 words, the 72-year old scientist ignited a vocal, angry discussion around the world. Three days later, the global indignation prompted Dr. Hunt to resign from his position as honorary professor with the University College London Faculty of Life Sciences. He was subsequently asked to step down from the European Research Council, where he was a long-standing committee member.

A week out, there is more perspective on the issue. Dr. Hunt apologized, though many argue his apology was insufficient. Also, personal details of his life emerged, adding texture to his relationships with women. In addition to being the father to two daughters, Dr. Hunt happens to be the husband of Mary Collins, a senior immunology researcher, who is a professor and former dean with a 20-year career at the University College London. She is a self-proclaimed feminist who agrees her husband’s remarks were stupid, but defends his character and long record of collaborating with and mentoring female scientists. Some of those associates, mentees, and even Dr. Hunt’s first wife also came to his defense in media reports over the weekend. But the damage was done.

How did someone with a lifetime of achievement nosedive to global contempt? The public response may have less to do with Dr. Hunt’s 37 words, and more to do with the disgust of a greater misogyny pervading the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions. Unfortunately for Dr. Hunt, the thoughtlessness with which he spoke about women in science – jokingly or not – wove an irresistible media story in which he was the main character in a tale full of conflict, controversy, and contradiction. And for whatever story traditional media had to share in print and on the air, the social media sphere quickly made the shaming viral. For Dr. Hunt’s life and legacy – his words mattered.

This post is neither to condemn nor to pardon Dr. Hunt. That is another discussion. What I do want to raise is the power of words. Words have a remarkable ability to shape business outcomes. Words help individuals and businesses enhance positioning, but also have the potency to slay a reputation. Words alone, however, are not sufficient to cause people to think or do something different. For that, emotions are necessary, and emotions come when language shapes a mental structure, or “frame.”

The current frame around women in STEM is a contentious one. Women are underrepresented in both STEM degree programs and STEM positions for a variety of complex reasons tied to gender inequality. Perhaps Dr. Hunt, who referred to himself in the same controversial talk as a “has been scientist,” thought he was being humorous, during what could be considered a dry, scientific discussion. He failed to appreciate that within the frame of discussion around women in STEM, female efforts are persistently marginalized, and this needs to change. Therefore, any collegial, emotional appeal he was seeking fell short. Instead of head nods and laughs, he received an uncomfortable silence from a stunned audience.

If Dr. Hunt were a stand-up comedian, it could be presumed that people came for jokes and perhaps he would have received some laughs in a forum where comedy is often off-color. The reality, however, is that he was representing a greater scientific research community and his sexist comments were no laughing matter. The response to his remarks was swift and harsh, and fit the frame society has placed around the importance of elevating women in STEM. Whether or not the global vitriol fit the offense is another topic.

The lesson? Words matter. The frame, which gives context to words, matters even more. The next time you speak, consider how your message could be received beyond your immediate audience. Dr. Hunt’s talk and fallout is an easy example since his words were unarguably condemning to female scientists, whether it was his intention or not. In smaller, more subtle ways, however, it may be difficult to think beyond oneself or the immediate audience. If we find ourselves ever saying, “what I mean is” – and we all have – then it’s wise to think more critically about the words we choose and the frames that are so fundamental to shaping them.

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