Thanks to the BBC publishing the salaries of all its employees paid upwards of £150,000, the gender pay gap has become freshly relevant. Suddenly, reports showing that there are also gender pay gaps in the Church of England, at FTSE 100 companies and at the Financial Times newspaper feel topical instead of dully predictable. The gender pay gap is, of course, a crucial subject for anyone in the workplace and something discussed extensively on The Pool, but there was a sense – even on each Equal Pay Day – that the public felt defeated and jaded rather than fired up. The BBC figures have made the situation gloriously clear, it’s there in black and white with added celebrity faces, and the discussion feels invigorated. But with all this renewed focus comes the crushing realisation that there is still an unwillingness to get to the bottom of the problem. Even when it’s staring us in the face. Because it’s really obvious, isn’t it? Well, it’s babies, isn’t it?
It’s the cause that bigots and feminists can agree on: women earn less than men because they are the ones who become pregnant and breastfeed babies and take on a majority of the childcare. Yes, a base and straightforward sexism is also at play, whereby women who have not yet become mothers or may never become mothers are paid less, but in the UK in 2017, the pay gap is worse for women after they have children.
And there’s a sense that we all know this. And that we all accept this.
Instead of addressing this glaring social predicament, misogynists like Kevin Myers tend to think of it as a problem that only affects individial women
Last Sunday, when the Irish edition of The Sunday Times published a column on the BBC gender pay gap by the journalist Kevin Myers, there was a outcry because he used offensive anti-Semitic stereotypes. His suggestion that Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz found themselves high on the BBC best-paid list because they were Jewish and therefore good at striking a financial deal was detestable, or as Feltz herself put it, “so obviously racist it's surprisingly hurtful". Myers was sacked and forced to apologise in a series of excruciatingly ill-judged interviews – he told BBC Radio 5 live’s Emma Barnett, “I wish I were more like Jews than I am.” He has declared his career over, irretrievable damaged by the scandal, and one feels hopeful, if not convinced, that journalists and editors will now be less inclined to include racist or discriminatory passages in their newspapers.
What has been discussed less is that Myers’ anti-Semitism was an aside in a piece that was also vilely misogynistic. There can be no doubt that Myers was being sexist as well as anti-Semitic – the headline on the piece was “Sorry, ladies – equal pay has to be earned” – but we almost expect gender discrimination amid the recipes and celebrity profiles and fashion pages in the Sunday family newspaper. His assertion that men get paid more because they “usually work harder, get sick less frequently and seldom get pregnant” would, I suspect, have gone largely unnoticed if he hadn’t included his comments on Feltz and Winkleman.
And you know why? Because a lot of people think, Yeah, men don’t get pregnant, that’s why they are paid more… I mean, I think that. The veteran broadcaster Sue MacGregor thinks that, too: she told the Today programme recently that there won’t be equal pay “until men have babies”. It’s just that some us don’t think that that’s OK.
The fact that most families now need two parents in the workplace to survive economically sits uneasily alongside the fact that women are the ones who get pregnant and so will likely need to take time away from their job to do their other job of giving birth to and caring for the next generation. And instead of addressing this glaring social predicament, misogynists like Myers tend to think of it as a problem that only affects individual women.
When Jacinda Ardern became the new leader of the New Zealand Labour party this week, she was asked twice in the first seven hours whether she planned on becoming pregnant. The blatant gender discrimination was being passed off as a sort of no-holds-barred banter, the male pundits posing the question as one they had a right to ask. It’s bleak, especially as we know that female politicians can’t win; they’re damned if they do become mothers, damned if they don’t.
Whenever we discus the gender pay gap, we must also talk about the introduction of free childcare and the rolling out of paternity leave. We must talk about the fact that the UK’s statutory maternity leave isn’t adequate: a single mother or a woman whose partner’s salary won’t make up the difference will find herself in dire circumstances. We must stop thinking of more generous maternity leave packages as a “perk” for wealthy women. And we must challenge the notion that by becoming pregnant, a woman is tacitly agreeing to become the victim of discrimination.
The gender pay gap can be solved but only if we stop treating it like a mystery.