The real trouble with girls is that they can be horrible bullies when they smell blood
Published 13/06/2015 | 02:30
On Thursday, the National Women's Council of Ireland hosted a successful conference in Dublin called 'Feminist Futures'.
The topics covered by speakers included reproductive rights, sexual violence, the pay gap, and representation of women in politics and the boardroom - all serious issues affecting the lives of women and standing in the way of equality.
Meanwhile, in Britain, an eminent scientist was having his reputation, career and personal life dismantled for offering his own opinion on a lifetime working with women. Also a feminist issue, many decided. Or was it?
Let's just look at the case of Professor Tim Ward for a moment. The 72-year-old biochemist, who won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 2001, was asked to give a speech at a conference about women in science.
"Let me tell you about my trouble with girls," the professor told his audience, which was made up largely of female scientists and journalists. "Three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry."
Hunt went on to suggest that gender segregated labs would not be a bad idea. His comments were tweeted by an irate member of his audience. Cue Mass Feminist Outrage. The professor went on radio and apologised, saying he never meant to cause offence and that his comments were meant to be light-hearted.
But even if they were not a joke, what was so appalling about Hunt offering his opinion? It's not controversial to point out that women and men who work together sometimes become romantically involved. It's also hardly earth-shattering news that women occasionally cry at work - I've done it myself, and I've seen other women cry, but never a man.
As for suggesting that women and men work in segregated labs, you might disagree with Hunt - in my view it's a ludicrously regressive idea - but he's a scientist and there is evidence that he could argue backs up his claim: a number of studies have shown that girls do better in single-sex schools. Go figure.
As was probably inevitable, he quit his post at the life sciences department of University College London within days. The crime of offering a personal opinion based on evidence was deemed incompatible with holding his professional academic office.
But the mauling continues, much of it centred on Hunt's appearance and how deluded he must be to think that any colleague could find him attractive. Under the hashtag #thetroublewithgirls, people posted photos of his nose hair. There were unrepeatable insults. Much of the Twitter mob's attack amounted to no more than sexist bullying, but the irony seemed lost on them.
Meanwhile, as Hunt was enduring his public flogging, sports broadcaster John Inverdale was no doubt looking on grimly. Inverdale, an engaging presenter who managed to make sport accessible to even non-enthusiasts like myself, this week lost his job as presenter of the BBC's Wimbledon coverage.
Two years ago Inverdale said tennis player Marion Bartoli "was never going to be a looker" and from then on, his fate was sealed. Bartoli never took offence, saying she understood what Inverdale was trying to say, but as Professor Hunt has found to his cost, once you've riled the mob, there is no way back.
Somewhere along the way, the third wave of feminism, which began as a movement to address important issues like those discussed on Thursday, has been hijacked by keyboard warriors who smell blood and go in for the kill.
So what will our feminist future really be? Will it be a world where no one can take a joke? Will it be a world where eviscerating an elderly scientist who put his foot in his mouth is to be applauded? Will it be a world where if you hold views at odds with the feminist consensus, you must resign in shame? Because that sounds to me like a world where the mean girls rule, and if that's not a depressing thought, I don't know what is.