The gender pay debate is bigger than Professor Tim Hunt

Female professors at Hunt's university earn £2,200 less than their male counterparts


On Friday it was confirmed that Professor Tim Hunt will not be reinstated in his UCL post. Last month, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist unleashed a media storm when he said that women were a distraction in the laboratory because they were liable to fall in love and cry.

Today, Jonathan Dimbleby resigned from his honorary fellowship at UCL over what he called the ‘disgraceful’ treatment of Hunt.

Hunt, irresponsible as he was, has been scapegoated – no, not by ‘feminist bullies‘, but by UCL’s scrambling desire to prove its commitment to an equality that in reality is still not present in science.

FoI requests by the Sunday Times found that on average women are paid about £5,000 less than men for a university professorship in science. In some institutions such as Bristol University and the London School of Economics (LSE) the difference can be as high as £21,000.

At UCL the gap is smaller, but top female professors are still paid an average of £2,200 less than men. As Sarah Jane Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL, told the Times:

“The gender pay gap for professors is narrowing at UCL but there’s no justification for any gap”

Tim Hunt is probably feeling pretty baffled by the power of his own words right now – it is only by looking at this inequality that he will be able to make sense of the reaction to them.

The Hunt affair has to be taken in two contexts. The first is that of the sexism that is still pervasive in almost every aspect of UK public and professional life.

There has been a surge in acknowledgement and discussion of this recently, partly thanks to movements like the Everyday Sexism Project which points out that misogyny is often normalised through seemingly trivial rhetoric and ‘humour’.

This culture lays the ground for far darker strains of misogyny – domestic violence, rape apology. Through this lens the unfortunate Hunt may just be bumbling and out-of-touch, but his comments create fertile ground for the idea that women should not be in serious jobs.

The other context which is important here is the question of freedom of speech in academic spaces.

In recent months there have been a number of debacles which have suggested that the student left is headed in a very bizarre, censorious direction;  the cancellation of a debate on abortion at Oxford University; UCL student union censuring a Nietzsche reading group because it believed the content was fascist; the NUS refusing to condemn ISIS, vicious murderers of Muslims, on the grounds that such a condemnation would be ‘Islamophobic’.

This is mirrored in the US where terms like ‘triggering’ and ‘safe space’ are being used to stifling excess; these are legitimate concepts that are abused when applied to seminars on Ovid and open, mutually respectful debate. Offence is repeatedly cited as more important than education: in universities of all places.

This trend shows a level of sensitivity that is intellectually disabling, and it may be present in the reaction to Hunt’s comments: are we now so fragile that a mildly offensive, tired and dull cliche about women is more noteworthy than decades of groundbreaking cancer research?

Tim Hunt finds himself wedged awkwardly between these two realities, and it is difficult to say which should take precedent.

I understand why UCL felt they had to remove him – their reputation is too costly. But it seems a shame to judge someone for the worst thing they do, to write someone down in history as their worst self. Actually, it seems regressive, creating a landscape where there is no room for mistake and reform, driven by the desire to shut down prejudiced voices rather than engage with them.

Hunt is in his seventies; does that mean his opinions are not worth trying to change? That seems to me to be a very frightening idea. I’d rather have seen Hunt prove, through his undeniably valuable teaching, that he is not really a sexist.

We don’t have to accept all of someone’s opinions to learn from them – I’d take Hunt’s teaching even if he was wondering throughout if I’d fallen for him.

But the bigger point here is that the deluge of anger that hit Hunt was a long time coming, built of very real grievances.

UCL has 405 male, and 128 female science professors. Only 105 out of 1569 Royal Society Fellows are women. As Professor Uta Frith points out in this excellent piece, only 22 out of 106 of the awards and medals given by the Society over the last five years were given to women, and only 22 per cent of the successful candidates on the Royal Society’s University Research Fellows and Sir Henry Dale Fellows were women.

A 2014 government report found that in the UK, only 13 per cent of jobs in science, technology, engineering and maths are occupied by women. The Committee stated:

“The UK needs to address a shortage of skilled scientists and engineers: in our 2012 report on educating tomorrow’s engineers, we highlighted estimates that around 820,000 science, engineering and technology (SET) professionals will be required by 2020.

“The Society of Biology stated that “increasing women’s participation in the UK labour market could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion [1.3 – 2.0 per cent of GDP], with STEM accounting for at least £2 billion of this.”

The pay gap, and the lack of women in science affects women and girls everywhere; it limits their choices, it impacts their confidence, and it perpetuates a cycle of inequality. It is about so much more than just one man.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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8 Responses to “The gender pay debate is bigger than Professor Tim Hunt”

  1. Rick

    And how many of them have taken career breaks of years to look after children?

    You cannot expect to maintain salary progress if you take years off work !!!

  2. andyrwebman

    No justification for any gap?

    Perhaps if those stating this made an assessment of the achievements of the scientists in question and could show that women of equal achievement were being paid less, then you’d have a point.

    But they haven’t – they’ve assumed (in a highly unscientific manner) that women and men scientists are equally talented.

    Without proof, this is unscientific. Furthermore, there is already evidence to suggest that it might not be true – namely the fact that male characteristics lie on a wider distribution than those of females.So you get more male morons, but more male geniuses.

    Given that university fellowships sample at the high end of the distribution, you’d expect not only more male scientists, but more of the most intelligent scientists to be men.

    Unless you can produce solid evidence to refute this, the equal pay argument does not hold water – it is effectively an argument to give a lower achieving group the same average pay as that of a higher achieving group, just because of their gender.

  3. janlog

    So keeping the species going is grounds for lower pay than their male peers? Just tough luck on women, I suppose.
    You have absolutely no clue about the personal lives any or all the women affected.
    The pay is for the job, not the gender, as in most workplaces.
    And most professional women do not take years off work – join us in the 21st century please.

  4. damon

    I think this gender pay gap stuff is a load of bs.
    I get £9 an hour for driving vans and trucks in London.
    I just watched a woman from the BBC defending the salary from her other job at HSBC which pays her £500,000 a year and she insisted that she could do both.
    There’s all kinds of discrimination in the workplace. Age is one that I am soon to start experiencing myself maybe. Women are probably overly promoted in some jobs because of their gender.
    How come so many women are in the job of Human Resources? A cushy number compared to some of the dirtier jobs that men end up doing. In hotels, it always seems to be men that end up as the pot washers, while good looking young women will be working at the front desk.
    There’s a lot of ”swings and roundabouts” involved I would say.

  5. stevep

    The debate about pay should not be focused on gender but the gap between skills and classes of workers.
    We have moved away from a lesser differential of pay between the classes to a merit-based system where the more qualifications one has and the higher up the ladder one goes, the bigger the salary one can expect.
    It is good that clever, intellectual and industrious people are rewarded, but is the gap between the top and the bottom too wide now?
    Is a senior University professor or company boss worth ten times or more as much as someone who diligently keeps our streets clean?, Or cares for elderly people, or a factory worker?
    Is a corporation CEO or a hedge fund manager or a professional footballer worth 100 times as much?
    It is a fact that since Trades Unions were effectively neutered by the far-right establishment in the 1980`s, job insecurity, less pay and more work has been the hand the workers (skilled and unskilled) have been dealt.
    In the same period, lower-middle management pay and professional pay has soared disproportionally.
    Due to right-wing propaganda, it is accepted that lower paid workers now barely scratch a living and even have to claim state benefits at great cost to the taxpayer to make ends meet, while other classes flaunt their wealth and status: Sports professionals, Celebrities etc.
    Is it right? Is it fair?
    Are we really and truly happy living in a society with such unequal wealth?
    Let`s have a sensible debate about playing our part in society and how it`s citizens are rewarded.

  6. Selohesra

    If the pay is for the job why do women tennis players expect equal prize money to men – few women would get through first round of open competition and none to the business end of tournament. You cant have your cake and eat it!

  7. Honestly

    It is not true that female professors get paid 21,000 less at Bristol. The pay scale is EXACTLY the same! So measure the women by (say) H factor and you will see that their pay is higher perhaps?

  8. gunnerbear

    Lets just look at that statement: “Only 105 out of 1569 Royal Society Fellows are women. As Professor Uta Frith points out in this excellent piece only 22 out of 106 of the awards and medals given by the Society over the last five years were given to women, and only 22 per cent of the successful candidates on the Royal Society’s University Research Fellows and Sir Henry Dale Fellows were women.” Is it really unsurprising that more men are Fellows of the Royal Society – to achieve that level requires decades of unbroken, grinding work (or the odd massive breakthrough). Women tend to take career breaks for the obvious reasons. So 105 out of 1569 are women – or about 7% of the Fellows. Now then, women have won 22 out of 106 awards or about 21% of the available awards. So 7% of the cohort have won 21% of the awards……hardly seems like discrimination. But wait, a group comprising about 7% of the Royal Society, got 22% of the slots available on the Royal Society’s University Research Fellows and Sir Henry Dale Fellows group. Again hardly seems like discrimination………

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