Friday, June 12, 2015

UCL's problematic #TimHunt press release

Following the sexist comments made by Nobel prize winner Sir Tim Hunt, UCL sent out a press release stating that he had resigned from his position as an Honorary Professor. If they had left it there it would have been great, but they didn’t.
A second paragraph* went on to say “UCL was the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men”. This was, of course, picked up by many media sites, including the BBC and the Guardian, and was included in their stories. A nice bit of free advertising for the university there, on the back of a scandal caused by someone they’d previously been keen to count among their Nobel Laureates! Maybe not the best time to be boasting about their history. But the problems don’t stop there.
UCL’s statement references its admission of women in 1878. There is a strong implication that it was the first institution in England to do so, but this ignores the contribution of the earlier women’s colleges: Bedford (1849) in London, Girton (1869) and Newnham (1871) in Cambridge, and the London School of Medicine for Women (1874) all pre-date UCL’s admission of women. UCL would, it appears, like to airbrush out Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett, Emily Davies, and Elizabeth Jesser Reid.
It could be argued that UCL’s statement is technically correct in that the other colleges were women-only, making it the first to admit women on equal terms to men. But did UCL truly admit women on equal terms to men in 1878? According to Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick’s 1897 essay The Place of University Education in the Life of Women “Women [at University College] are admitted to the faculties of Arts, Science and Laws, but excluded from engineering and medicine with the exception of hygiene and public health.” Medicine, let it not be forgotten, was the discipline in which Hunt won his Nobel prize. It wasn’t until 1917, under the pressure of World War I, that UCL allowed women into medicine, later than many provincial English universities and other London colleges.
A final problem is the way that this has been inserted into the Hunt story. It’s not just the free advertising, it’s not just the historically dubious claims, it’s the echoes of #NotAllMen, the implication that UCL has a spotless history of trailblazing women’s rights on which Hunt is the only blemish. By perpetuating the idea that Hunt was a bad apple rather than part of a systemic problem, UCL do a disservice to the gender equality they claim to champion.

*Note: this second paragraph was the final paragraph of the press release when I wrote this blog. Others have since been added.

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