Tim Hunt (Nobel Prize winner for Medicine) has got himself into some hot water by saying at a conference that ‘women in the lab’ are a problem because they fall in love with you, you fall in love with them, and when you criticize them, they cry. So my first response to this is to investigate crying a bit.
The best thing I have read about crying comes from Alice Miller’s book ‘The Drama of the Gifted Child.’ In it she says that we learn to deny our true selves in order to keep being fed and meeting the demands of those whose approval we need. So we end up with ‘false selves.’ But these selves are out of touch. They are constructed ‘for others’ and bear no relationship to what is happening on the inside. Alice Miller says that the job of therapy is to people to honour their true selves. It is to honour both the sadness or shock or fright of the present, or the sadness of what we have lost in the past. Crying is a sign of being ‘in touch’.
So sometimes in groups that I have been in, people have come into contact with their true selves and begun to cry. They say ‘I’m sorry, I’m upset’. Well one self has been replaced by another self, but that does not necessarily imply being ‘upset’ like a glass that has been ‘tipped over’ or a plate that has been ‘upset’. Often in such groups I say ‘You don’t look upset to me. You look in touch with something. What’s that?
So when Tim Hunt does not like it when people cry in the lab after they have been criticized, what’s he saying? My own experience is this. When someone says something unexpected to me, in a critical way, I get a flush of adrenaline. It comes from having the ‘sensitive gene’ and I can’t do anything about this physiological reaction. I remember being in a group, learning pastoral care. The supervisor would often come out with insights that were so true, but so contradictory of my own self perception, that I got that ‘shock of adrenaline’ that made me frightened too. Am I really like that? I was looking for places in my soul that could be protected from such insightful ‘assaults’ as I experienced them. Another supervisor used to say ‘Look, I can see you’re making great progress here and here and here, but I think that you could look at this part of your conversation. See how it goes. See the effect that you had on your conversation partner?’ So I was protected a little from the shock of the real by the opening, kind comments.
It’s like speaking a foreign language. Some times, when I understand what is said to me in French, and I can say what I want, I go away happy, and crying’ in touch with the joy of success. But ten other times, I go away crying, sad, because I have not understood what has been said, and I have not had the where with all to say ‘Sorry, I have not understood you, could you repeat that please but more slowly.’ It was a big breakthrough moment, with tears, when speaking to a friend of mine about all the mistakes I make in German. He said ‘But your mistakes are sweet!’ After that, I did not mind so much making mistakes in that group of friends.
I can imagine what it is like in a lab. As Tim hunt says, the only thing that matters is the truth. I can imagine the rough and tumble atmosphere that serves the search for the truth, and the ‘steel trap’ logic that must go with experimentation. But underneath we are people. We want to ‘get it right’ we want to please our superiors and colleagues. I can imagine that the women in the lab are more ‘in touch’ and so do cry more easily. So what?
The need not to cry is a product of the need not to be that ‘in touch’ or that ‘vulnerable’ at any given moment. I remember clearly one day when I was sailing with my girlfriend at the time in my dinghy. The wind suddenly came up and we were in danger of being blown over: not so bad for two blokes, but difficult in mixed gender company. My girlfriend began to cry. I said ‘Now is not the time to cry. Now is the time to take that rope, and hold on, and we need to get back to the shore. Then we can cry.’ Which happened. Sometimes, like being in battle, or when I need to do a job for the sake of others, being that in touch is not helpful. But being in touch afterward is necessary.
So here are some ways I know to help this situation. I ask So what would be wrong with this? Tim Hunt criticizes one of his co-workers, who then begins to cry. Ok, so they are in touch with their ‘inner shocked, vulnerable, wanting to be right’ self. They do that. Ten minutes later, the conversation returns to the subject of the research. The person who has been ‘criticized’ has had their whole self honoured: emotions and brains. So back we go to the research, and look at the facts. I think that this could work.
Or, there could be an agreement to act like my second supervisor. Tim could say ‘well you are doing ok. This is right, and this is right and this is right, but this needs looking at. That way, a person’s vulnerabilities are acknowledged before their failings are pointed out.
Another way I know is to put the issue ‘out on the table’ away from the person who ‘has’ the issue. That way, it is not ‘me’ that people are talking about but ‘someone’ who is ‘doing research’ has an issue. That way, the search for truth, and the steel trap-minds that are needed for this research are separated from the vulnerable people who are doing the research.
The other thing that I think about is the atmosphere of the lab. If the lab is a place where everyone builds each other up and where failure is seen as a necessary part of the research process then mistakes can be ‘sweet’ or like the gestalt people we can say ‘everything is a result.’
So the hymn comes to me.
All praise to our redeeming Lord,
who joins us by his grace,
and bids us, each to each restored,
together seek his face.
He bids us build each other up;
and, gathered into one,
to our high calling’s glorious hope
we hand in hand go on.
The gift which he on one bestows,
we all delight to prove,
the grace through every vessel flows
in purest streams of love.
And if our fellowship below
in Jesus be so sweet,
what height of rapture shall we know
when ‘round his throne we meet!
Why can’t a lab be more like a Church?