Provost’s View: Women in Science
26 June 2015
UCL was the first University in England to admit women on equal terms to men. Equality between the sexes is one of our core values, yet this past fortnight our commitment to women and to women in science has been challenged, our reputation put under pressure and we have been part of an intense and uncomfortable media storm.
The trigger for this was remarks about the place of women in science made by Sir Tim Hunt. I don’t intend to repeat or re-analyse who said what, where or when, and thereby provide more fuel for media speculation. I will simply restate that when on the 10th June Sir Tim sent in his resignation from his honorary position with UCL, as Provost I sanctioned acceptance of that resignation in good faith on the basis that it was his personal choice as the honourable thing to do.
First let me say that I do regret that my acceptance of that resignation, and our announcement of it, has led to so much personal difficulty for Sir Tim and also for Professor Mary Collins, who is a highly respected and valued senior member of staff at UCL. I met with Mary last week and also spoke to Sir Tim by phone. Some regrets were expressed in both directions.
There has been a great deal of comment, but I would point readers of this article to two very high quality blogs on this subject by eminent women scientists, one written by Dorothy Bishop that is supportive of UCL’s position and one, for balance, that is less supportive from Athene Donald.
For both of these blogs it is worth reading the comments sections to see just how divided society and the world of science is about this problem. My own inbox has been full of that divided opinion both external and internal to UCL and after discussing the whole issue with our heads of departments and other leaders earlier this week, I felt that it was now important for me to make my views known to our UCL community and the world at large.
What good can come of this episode and what ultimately is the big picture that UCL should now focus its energies and efforts on? Equality, diversity and the greatest good for the greatest number are enshrined in our Benthamite origins. Those values hold true to this day and we constantly try to live up to them.
To a significant extent, we, like many other universities, have failed to achieve the level of equality and diversity that we aspire to. We have been self-critical in this regard and have identified the need to do better as a key part of our strategy, UCL 2034. We are making slow (some would say glacial) progress on gender equality and are working hard to tackle racialised inequalities (perhaps an even more complex issue) head on. Women now make up 33% of the senior academic and professional staff in grades 9 and 10.
Because we are not satisfied with this level of progress, we have adopted the Athena Swan methodology widely across the institution and have now achieved more Athena Swan Silver awards than any other University and have just submitted our application for an institutional Silver award. We are also one of the pilot universities in the Race Equality Charter Mark scheme and have just submitted that too. Every faculty and professional service has an equality action plan that is being implemented and all members of the Senior Management Team have personal objectives with respect to equality and diversity.
In other words Equality and Diversity is not just an aspiration at UCL but informs our everyday thinking and our actions. It was for this very reason that Sir Tim’s remarks struck such a discordant note. Our ambition is to create a working environment in which women feel supported and valued at work. To be frank, a reputation for such helps us attract the very best women to UCL, including women in science. Athene Donald’s blog contains some excellent practical suggestions for what we should actually do to improve things for women in science, all of which I agree with.
There have been many calls for me to reverse my decision to accept Sir Tim Hunt’s resignation from his honorary post at UCL, but there have also been very significant representations to me not to do so, including, but not only, from women in science. Our view is that reversing that decision would send entirely the wrong signal and I have reason to believe that Sir Tim would also not want that to happen.
An honorary appointment is meant to bring honour both to the person and to the University. Sir Tim has apologised for his remarks, and in no way do they diminish his reputation as a scientist. However, they do contradict the basic values of UCL – even if meant to be taken lightly – and because of that I believe we were right to accept his resignation. Our commitment to gender equality and our support for women in science was and is the ultimate concern.