University College London (UCL) Qatar, the local branch of one of the UK’s most prestigious universities, has admitted to an “anomaly” in its HR policy that stipulated married women recruited locally would be paid significantly less than their male colleagues.
In a story published in the UK’s The Times newspaper this week, an internal email sent last year by Thilo Rehren, director of UCL Qatar, called the policy of giving married female members of staff a lower housing allowance than their male colleagues “morally and legally not acceptable.”
The note, sent to UCL’s vice provost for student affairs, read:
“Current practice (which is informed by Qatari norms) treats our employees materially differently depending on their gender, which is morally and legally not acceptable, leads to serious dissatisfaction at work, and poses a risk for staff retention.”
Rehren’s comments followed a complaint from a member of UCL Qatar staff in January last year that said that the policy could “materially disadvantage married women.”
The exchange of internal emails on the subject was uncovered by Times reporters following a Freedom of Information law request, which allow both journalists and members of the public in the UK to request records from public institutions.
The emails highlight the case of a woman who received a housing allowance of just £624 (QR3,469) a month compared to a male colleague who received £3,568 (QR19,831) a month, despite there being just one grade difference between the two employees.
The emails also show that the university took steps to remedy the situation after the complaint was raised, giving compensation to current and former staff who were affected by the rule.
One member of staff was given £124,000 (QR690,000) in compensation to reflect the housing allowance she should have been paid, the newspaper reports.
The Times‘ article follows an outcry in the UK media after one of UCL’s professors, Tim Hunt, was forced to resign after making sexist comments about female scientists.
What the law says
Rehren’s statement that UCL-Qatar’s policy was “informed by Qatari norms” reflects a common scenario here.
Usually, only the “head of a household” is entitled to receive benefits like housing allowances, school fee allowances and free flights home.
This often means that women who are married to men who are also working in Qatar do not receive allowances received by other colleagues doing the same job.
This is because many married women arrive in Qatar on a family visa, sponsored by their husbands.
When she starts looking for work, potential employers assume that she will already be accommodated in housing provided by her husband’s employer, and therefore they believe she has no need of further financial assistance to help with housing.
It states that if both husband and wife work for a government ministry or related agency, the spouse who qualifies for the highest housing allowance should continue to receive it.
The other spouse would be paid the same (lower) allowance as that of an unmarried employee. The policy, however, does not state that the man should automatically receive the higher allowance.
In the case of UCL Qatar, married women recruited locally – both expats and Qatari nationals – were paid a “married person’s supplement,” lower than the allowance given to a single person and significantly less than the allowance given to married men and women recruited from abroad.
Private companies in Qatar set their own rules regarding housing allowance entitlement, but it is normal for them to refuse to offer a locally-hired spouse (either male or female) any additional benefits on top of his/her salary, particularly if that employee remains under the spouse’s sponsorship and not the company’s.
Although these practices appear to discriminate against women, Qatar’s Labor Law specifically states that women and men should receive equal pay:
“Article (93) A working woman shall be paid a wage equivalent to the wage payable to a man if she performs the same work and shall be availed of the same opportunities of training and promotion.”
However, despite the word of the law, it does appear that the withholding of benefits such as housing allowances is having a significant impact on the earning power of locally-hired women – and it’s not a new problem.
In 2011, the Qatar Statistic Authority’s Sustainable Development Indicators report focused on the widening pay gap between men and women in Qatar, noting that many women, both Qatari and non Qatari, were paid 25 to 50 percent less than men, despite the fact that their working hours were comparable.
The report attributed the widening gulf in part to the social allowances afforded men as household heads, which women were unlikely to receive.
The Times noted that UCL Qatar staff were alerted to the change in policy last July, and it is assumed that affected female staff received compensation soon afterwards.
In a newly released statement reacting to the newspaper’s story, UCL disclosed that the housing element of its contracts for staff in Qatar was the responsibility of its “partner on the ground,” QF, which funds the housing of its staff.
However, the university says it accepts “legitimate criticism for the error (it) made” but says that it was a “genuine mistake” which was “rectified more than a year before any media coverage.”
Ethics of foreign firms
For Times columnist Giles Whittell, who wrote an editorial in Wednesday’s Times entitled “Universities that forget values lose their reputation,” this incident is an example of how many British firms water down their values when they move abroad in order to make doing business easier.
“Higher education should be a growth export for Britain,” he said, “but British educational brands have value abroad because of what they stand for. If it turns out they don’t stand for anything, it won’t be long before they don’t have any value either.”
For its part, UCL argues that its move to remedy the situation when it came to light shows that it takes its ethics seriously:
“Any university that seeks to branch out and establish an overseas presence faces the challenge of remaining true to its ethos while appreciating that legal and societal practices vary around the world,” it said in its statement.
“Whether in Qatar or elsewhere, our aim is to engage to support progressive change. We do not leave our values behind when we leave London.”