University College London (UCL) has painted itself into a not so pretty corner. A few months ago, scientist, university professor, and 2001 Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt was forced to resign over sexist comments made at a global conference in Seoul. Hunt uttered this unfortunate phrase: “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 criticise them, they cry.”
Hunt, 72, had previously admitted to his reputation of being a chauvinist. This is hardly surprising; he is of a generation in which this flippant attitude towards women is entrenched. There was more than likely no malice behind this comment; Hunt stated afterwards that he was “very nervous” and “went mad up there.” But come on, you can’t be saying those things in 2015 and not expect a media (social and otherwise) storm. Understandably, the response was immediate and catastrophic.
What a social media storm it was! Hunt was described on Twitter as “a clueless, sexist jerk”; “a misogynist dude scientist”; and one tweet demanded that the Royal Society “kick him out.” Another tweet read: “Maybe if less male scientists were such chauvinist pigs there would be more women in science and technology Tim Hunt?” My personal favourite: “Why are the British so embarrassing abroad?”
Although many have said, including female scientists, that Hunt’s treatment at the hands of the university was unfair and histrionic, it is nonetheless expected. Generational or not; there is no way a man can escape very public consequences when making such comments, especially as the conference was for women in science. Of course UCL wanted to make an example of him; the last thing a nearly 200-year-old predominantly male British institution needs is a reputation for chauvinism.
The example would have been well and truly made, had claims not recently come to light that UCL actually pays female staff less than male staff at the Qatari campus. This claim was revealed after a string of emails in which a female staff member complained that married women were given a lower living allowance than married men. In addition to this, Qatari has actually admitted that the women on staff receive a lower salary. Female academics are reportedly earning up to 15 per cent less than their male compatriots. Top female academics earn about $4,800AUD less. On average, female university professors earn about $11,000AUD less than male professors.
UCL has admitted the mistake and sought to correct it. A spokesperson for UCL stated: “Clearly, this was never intended as an intentional policy and as soon as the anomaly came to light we took steps to rectify it. The policy change was backdated so that staff were not disadvantaged.” In other words, UCL is estimated to owe hundreds of thousands of pounds to its female employees, and if it wants to maintain the image of equal opportunity, it must honour this pledge.
Look, it’s fabulous that UCL is naming and shaming itself for this mess. However, the question that needs to be asked is how the HELL this payment policy managed to go unseen for such a period of time. I mean, really?! Academia is already a boys club; surely every educational facility in the world is on high alert for such policy discrepancies. To me, this is a case of two steps forward, one step backwards. I am a great believer in academia, at a tertiary level especially. But holy moly; if UCL, one of the most respected and (hopefully) progressive universities in the world has managed to sidestep this sexist policy for so long, then we still have A LOT of work to do.
Image via Stuff.co.nz