Chi Onwurah, who worked for 20 years in a male-dominated sector as a chartered electrical engineer, said the mayor of London may be in breach of discrimination laws by defending comments made by Professor Tim Hunt.
In a newspaper column, Johnson said it is 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”. Hunt, a Nobel laureate and senior scientific adviser, was forced to stand down last week after claiming that women colleagues cry when criticised.
Onwurah, who was head of technology at Ofcom before becoming an MP, said that while it was reasonable to argue that Hunt had been treated unfairly, Johnson’s comments were irresponsible because he sought to excuse views that are unacceptable in the workplace.
“As the mayor of London, he is effectively managing many women. 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.
“I think women employees could rightly argue that they have not had proper feedback from Johnson because of his views on women and their propensity to weep in the workplace. It could have prevented women from being promoted.
“I have found in my career in industry that constructive criticism can really improve opportunities at work. Johnson could be holding women back by not giving them honest feedback,” she said.
Hunt resigned from both the Royal Society and University College London after his remarks sparked a backlash online. The renowned scientist reportedly described himself as a “chauvinist pig” at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul and argued in favour of single-sex laboratories.
He 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.” Hours later, he attempted to justify his words in comments to Radio 4’s Today Programme.
The scientist told the Observer that he had been “hung out to dry” over comments that he insisted were meant to be humorous and for which he later apologised.
Johnson said the comments were made during a “light-hearted, off-the-cuff speech”. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said: “Sir Tim 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 Conservative politician likened the reaction to Hunt’s comments to what he described as “mumbo jumbo” claims by a Malaysian minister that the actions of tourists, including Briton Eleanor Hawkins, who stripped on a mountain considered to be sacred, had caused an earthquake. 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.”
Onwurah criticised the way that UCL reportedly forced Hunt to leave his job without a formal explanation, but said he should no longer be put in charge of women employees. “I don’t think he [Hunt] should have been dismissed from his job without being given some performance feedback. But I don’t think he should be in a position to manage women with those views,” she said.
Onwurah has worked in hardware and software development, production management and strategy for private sector firms in the UK, France, the US and Nigeria. Before becoming an MP in 2010, she was head of telecoms technology at the industry regulator Ofcom.
A spokesman for Johnson did not reply to a request for a comment.
Nicky Morgan, the equalities minister, told the Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit in London on Monday: “We have been reminded of how far we still have to go with men. Just in the last week we have been reminded how far we still have to go in one field: science. I think someone who starts off remarks with ‘I’m a chauvinist should remember the old adage: ‘If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.’”
This article was written by Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 16th June 2015 06.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010