Universities in Hong Kong

Senior manager at University of Hong Kong accused of sexist remarks on retirement

  • Deputy vice chancellor Paul Tam told academics at forum to avoid becoming overly emotional about retirement policy
  • Female professor says comments were directed at her after she laid out evidence on why policy was biased against women
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2018, 9:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 4:26pm

A senior manager at the University of Hong Kong has been accused of making demeaning and sexist remarks during a forum on the institution’s retirement policy in November.

Professor Petula Ho Sik-ying, a leading expert on sexual and gender studies, issued an open letter of complaint on Tuesday to the university’s provost and deputy vice chancellor Paul Tam Kwong-hang.

The Post reported earlier that Tam had appealed to his colleagues at the forum not to turn the discussion into an emotional issue – a comment Ho said she felt was directed at her.

Tam on Tuesday denied any such intent.

“My comments were general and not directed towards any individual or group. I am sorry if any words have inadvertently caused upset,” he said.

Ho and other female academics laid out evidence at the event to back up their belief that the retirement policy was biased against women.

Ho said a two-year retirement contract she had received was inadequate to recognise her research achievements after she was promoted to a professor. It had made her feel humiliated, she said.

She questioned the peer review process at the university and the qualifications of the assessors who decided on her retirement post.

Female academics presented an array of information and statistics at the forum to illustrate the problems faced by women wishing to delay retirement.

Tam was the only speaker from senior management and was bombarded with questions about transparency and fairness over the course of the intense two-hour event.

The forum was organised by the HKU Convocation, a statutory body made up of graduates and teachers.

Ho said three female attendees including two professors spoke up after the last speaker, Professor Cheng Sea-ling from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, presented her views on how the system in the city was unfair to women.

Tam is said to have responded by urging university staff “not to be involved in emotions [because] we are, after all, intellectuals”.

“We must use our brains, minds and our hearts,” he was quoted as saying.

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Ho said she believed those words were directed at her due to comments she had made about the stigma faced by women looking to delay retirement and problems with the assessment process.

Gina Marchetti, a female professor at the forum, was also quoted in Tuesday’s letter.

“I was flabbergasted,” she said. “After all the information and statistics we put together, it was unbelievable to have our efforts denied like this.”

Marchetti, who chairs the arts faculty’s committee on gender equality and diversity, told the Post HKU’s retirement policy was indeed biased.

She said most staff granted new contracts or extensions were full professors and men.

“Most people you see on campus beyond 60 are male,” she said.

Ho said one male professor had emailed her with a message of support, saying he thought Tam’s “ungracious comments that followed were not unexpected, but were ruthless misogyny”.

Ho called on Tam to apologise as well as disclose his age and contract terms, since he was the head of the committee that decided on retirement posts. She also asked the university to take action to improve gender equality.

The current contract renewal arrangement upon reaching the retirement age of 60 was in everyone’s best interests, Tam reportedly told the forum.

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HKU changed its retirement policy in 2016. Those turning 60 are given a new contract for a non-tenured position on approval. For some, the switch to non-tenured posts means a pay cut.

The university has come in for criticism in recent years after losing a number of renowned scholars to retirement. They included Professor Jim Chi-yung, former chair professor of geography, whose application for an extension was rejected after he turned 65. He had spent 37 years with the university.

An HKU spokeswoman said any review of the retirement policy would be centred on how the best interests of the university could be served, with due consideration to fair treatment and recognition for colleague contributions.

“That such a stance has been interpreted as gender biased is regrettable,” she said.

Statistics on professors awarded appointments beyond retirement illustrated the gender neutrality in the process, she added.

“We are pleased to see some gains in gender parity in important areas such as promotions to full professorship, and promotions and selections for committee membership,” she said.