Mayor is accused of casual sexism over remark at forum with Malaysian prime minister

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has been accused of casual sexism after joking that the increase in the number of women attending university in Malaysia was down to their desire to find a husband.

Johnson, no stranger to controversy, risked accusations of sexism after he made the remark at the launch of the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) at City Hall, where he appeared alongside the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak. Asked about the role of women in Islamic societies, Razak said: "Before coming here, my officials have told me that the latest university intake in Malaysia, a Muslim country, 68% will be women entering our universities."

Johnson interrupted him, suggesting the female students "have got to find men to marry". Laughter can be heard from audio from the meeting, but the mayor has since been fiercely criticised for the comments.

Sophia Furber, a reporter at Estates Gazette who was at the forum, tweeted that the mayor's comment had made some in the room uncomfortable. "It was painful," she wrote. "I don't think the Malaysians thought it was as funny as Boris did."

She later told the Guardian: "I think the Malaysians were a bit taken aback by the remark. I felt that the comment was a bit naff and not in the spirit of the event, since the Malaysians/WIEF came across as very sincere about promoting women in business.

"There were some groans from audience members – especially from professional, hijab-wearing ladies."

The Evening Standard's political correspondent Pippa Crerar, who was also at the forum, called it "a stupid comment but it was clearly a joke and was met with the groans it deserved", adding that the loudest came from her. The Everyday Sexism campaign group, which documents incidences of sexism, called the comments "pathetically archaic, unacceptably sexist and hopelessly out of touch".

Last year Johnson denied being sexist following allegations that he was disrespectful to female politicians. The mayor was confronted with a dossier of public exchanges made during his four-year term, to highlight concerns over his "disrespectful, patronising way at meetings" towards female assembly members that "you do not display when dealing with male assembly members", according to Jennette Arnold, Labour chair of the assembly.

Johnson responded: "I have not been more robust towards female rather than male assembly members and I do not believe I have been remotely sexist."

© Guardian News and Media 2013