Business Law & Compliance

Boris Johnson may be in breach of discrimination laws, warns MP

4 min read

17 June 2015

Labour politician Chi Onwurah, who has worked for 20 years in a male-dominated sector as a chartered electrical engineer, said the mayor of London made a mistake in defending comments made by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt.

Hunt was forced to resign from both the Royal Society and University College London (UCL) after suggesting that scientists should work in gender-segregated labs.

The scientist, who called himself a “chauvinist pig” at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, said: “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.” 

Later he told the Observer that he had been “hung out to dry” over comments that were intended to be humorous and for which he apologised.

This was echoed by Onwurah, who criticised UCL for forcing Hunt to leave his job without a formal explanation. She suggested that it would have been better if he were just no longer be put in charge of female employees. 

“I don’t think [Hunt] should have been dismissed from his job without being given some performance feedback,” she said. “But I don’t think he should be in a position to manage women with those views.” 

Hunt’s views, however, were recently defended by London mayor Boris Johnson, who said it was a scientific fact that women cry more readily than men, and maintained that it should not be an offence to point out a “gender difference”.  He also added that the scientist’s comments had been made during a “light-hearted, off-the-cuff speech”.

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Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson claimed that Hunt was doing what he had done all his life – pointing out a natural phenomenon he had observed. He did not deserve to be pilloried, and should be reinstated forthwith to his academic positions, the mayor added.

Johnson likened the reaction to Hunt’s comments to what he described as “mumbo jumbo” claims by a Malaysian minister that an earthquake had been caused by deities in outrage of British tourists stripping on a mountain considered sacred.

He wrote: “I am afraid that we in 21st-century Britain are in no position to snigger at the tribes and their fit of irrational indignation. We have our own mystery gods these days.”

According to Onwurah, Johnson’s comments were irresponsible because he tried to excuse views now unacceptable in the workplace.

“As the mayor of London, he is effectively managing many women,” she said. “If Boris is treating women differently from men by not giving them honest feedback on their performance because they might burst into tears, he is certainly failing in his duty of care and could be in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act.”

She suggested that female employees could argue that they had not been given proper feedback from Johnson because of his views on women and their “propensity to weep in the workplace”. This could have prevented women from being promoted, she added.