Sex discrimination shocked forensic scientist in 1960s Hong Kong

Sheilah Hamilton expected gruesome crime scenes when she joined the government in 1968, but not unequal pay and ban from golf courses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 5:11am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 5:11am

Gruesome scenes of murder, rape and car crashes were par for course for Sheilah Hamilton after arriving in Hong Kong 45 years ago. But the sexual inequality she encountered was unexpected.

Born and raised in Glasgow, Hamilton moved to the then British colony in 1968 to work for the government as a forensic scientist.

What she found was discrimination, both professional and personal.

"I came from an environment in the UK where women earned the same pay as their male counterparts, so the 'interesting' thing when I came here was being paid 75 per cent of what men got."

The job offer stipulated she had to be unmarried, and that her pay would be HK$2,070 per month with an extra HK$248 expatriate pay.

A man at the same level was paid HK$2,580, with HK$260 expatriate pay. And there was no requirement for a man to be single.

It wasn't until 1975 that the pay scales became equal. "Hong Kong came into the modern age and stopped being so discriminatory towards its women," declared Hamilton.

Nowadays, the civil service is an equal opportunities employer, Secretary for the Civil Service Paul Tang Kwok-wai told the Sunday Morning Post.

"Appointments to and promotion within the civil service are based on the principle of fair and open competition," Tang said.

Currently, eight of the 17 permanent secretaries - the most senior positions in the civil service - are women.

Pay levels were not the only way Hong Kong repressed women in the 1960s.

A keen golfer, Hamilton had carted her golf clubs to Hong Kong on the then 25-hour journey by plane from England - but it proved a wasted effort.

"I was going to homicide scenes and major crimes yet I wasn't entitled to play golf at the weekend because I wasn't a man," she recalled, referring to a ban on women playing golf at the weekends.

"Seeing that I was only being paid 75 per cent of what my male colleagues were earning, I suggested to my boss that as I wanted to play golf, might I have Wednesday off?

"It was said very tongue in cheek and I didn't succeed."

Instead, she took up tennis, badminton, squash and, later, long-distance running.

She still has never played golf in Hong Kong.

Banning women from attending fire scenes was another anomaly for Hamilton.

"It made no sense at all. I had been to about 300 homicides, some of which were where the maggots had taken over. It did not seem to be a logical thing to say, 'You shouldn't go to fire scenes'."

She was able to right that wrong in 1989 when she started her own consultancy, Forensic Focus, and undertook extensive fire investigation training in the 1990s.

This week, Hamilton celebrates three milestones: 25 years as director of her own consultancy; 45 years as a forensic scientist; and her 70th birthday.

The self-confessed ailurophile - someone who loves cats - has never been married or had children.

"I prefer pussycats," she joked in her Happy Valley home.