John de Bueger
Alasdair Thompson of the Employers and Manufacturers Association got into deep water last week for blundering into that minefield where even angels fear to tread. He crossed swords with union boss Helen Kelly in an on-air discussion on the vexed subject of gender pay equity.
Given that last time I ventured into this tortured realm the editor was subjected to a sea of flailing handbags and had little option but to run a reader's poll to see if I should be fired, it is with some trepidation that I broach the subject again.
Perhaps some of us never learn – even if the main result of that survey was to cause our sainted editor to review my remuneration in a very gracious and generous manner.
The ensuing hullabaloo on both TV and radio over Alasdair's explanation why women are paid less than men was a classic case of half-truths, misleading statistics, and misrepresentation. He was widely reported to have attributed "period pain" as being part of the reason for regular absence from work, despite having used neither word in the original interview with Mike Hosking.
So far in the 10 or more years of writing this column, I have never mentioned talkback radio once, but on this occasion it was helpful to listen to the to-ing and fro-ing. The attitude of virtually all the callers was somewhat unexpected, and because several were professional women, the discourse was less rabid, and more to the point than usual.
While I was listening, not one caller thought Alasdair was seriously out of order in representing bare absenteeism facts, even if his conclusions were stupidly sexist. The most plausible participants were two women who owned small businesses. Both said that due to previous bitter experience, that under no circumstances would they ever again employ any woman who looked like she might get pregnant.
Despite most of their respective staffs being female, the result of this recruitment policy was that they only employed women over 40, plus the odd man.
The reason for their hardball attitude had nothing whatsoever to do with PMT, but rather, the problem was small children – and the inevitable need for mothers to leave work at short notice for a myriad valid reasons. If this unspoken, but highly discriminatory attitude towards hiring staff is common across small business, is it any wonder that gender pay equity is an unachievable dream – except in government departments and large undertakings? After all, the great majority of businesses in this country could be described as small.
Perhaps it's time Alasdair sorted his facts out before going public again, because I can tell you from long years of employment – admittedly in a male-dominated environment – that women are generally healthier than men. It is the kids that get sick, and need mum to look after them.
In fact, when it comes to taking sickies, my experience is that with the under-40s, the employer's main problem is not PMT in the front office, but rather blokes having hangovers out the back.
On one local construction site some years ago, the main topic featuring in the monthly safety report was not how many guys fell off scaffolds, or banged their thumb with a hammer, but rather, how many dozen "morning after" pills our site industrial nurse had to dish out week after week to insure some productivity before smoko.
Dora manned the main gate with a box of pick-me-up pills every morning, and dished them out to anyone looking below the weather.
My wife, who never took a single day off work in over 40 years, often complained that blokes had it easy: "If you guys are off colour, you have a lie-down, while we battle on. It's just another cross the girls have to bear."
In an interview with Mary Wilson on Close-Up, Alasdair admitted that he had no hard data to back up his assertions. While he said the statistics indisputably proved that women took more time off than blokes, he couldn't explain why.
Whether or not he is sacked, in future, before shooting himself in the foot again, he would be well advised to look into the facts behind the raw data.
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