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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