Recession, mothers and the pay gap

I took a royal kicking on the internet the other day, which is never comfortable but is often instructive. The piece was this one, and the kicking was in the comments, as data-geeks swarmed all over the figures quoted by the Fawcett Society on the gender pay-gap in the UK. The consensus was that there is no significant gender pay-gap (outside a couple of industries, notably pharmacy and IT) until you move into the post-30 age group. At this point, you’re talking not so much about a pay-gap as a motherhood gap.

There are a few possible explanations for this, but it seems to me it largely comes down to one thing: employers. Employers who think that mothers are unreliable, that flexi-time is unworkable, that job-sharing is inefficient, and that mothers who have taken time out have become de-skilled.

A report by Regus finds that mothers seeking work this year are going to find it tougher than ever, as the proportion of companies ‘planning’ to hire mothers drops to just 26% (43% of companies were planning to hire at all). So roughly 40% of companies expecting to recruit this year would simply not consider an application from a mother. As Regus points out, given that many of the public sector employees losing their jobs this year are women, the outlook is pretty crappy for anyone who has been idiotic enough to reproduce, and still expects employers to take her seriously.

I had a conversation with the excellent women at Maternity Action recently (the site is a marvellous resource of legal information and advice), and one of the problems we have here is a lack of data about pregnant women and mothers who are facing renewed discrimination in this recession. So – acknowledging that this is going to be more anecdotal than stats-driven – it would be great if you could use the comments section on this post to describe your experiences of workplace or recruitment discrimination. If you’ve recently been told (or suspect) that your job’s going because you’re pregnant, or have been passed over for promotion because you’re about to go on maternity leave, or been asked at interview about your childcare arrangements, I’d love to hear from you.

Here is a list. You might be on it

Earlier this week, the people who live in my house got together to compile a shortlist of People and Things. We did this on the basis of What We Could See At The Time and also What Was In Our Heads That Very Minute. We then handed the shortlist to our milkman, who assumed it was a cheque and returned it shortly afterwards with a bad grace and some runic markings (something do to with Dairy Diaries). Anyway, we are pleased now to share with you the results of our deliberative procedure. Check it out because you very much might be on there.


1) Evie from down the road (age 5)

2) Robertson Ay

3) Norman Baker MP (transport supremo and performance artiste)

4) Funny-looking woman on the news just now

5) Steve Jansen (other surviving members of Japan did not quite make the list)


1) Wireless dongle (broken)

2) 2mm crosshead screw (you can’t throw it away. It’s obviously from something.)

3) Nerf gun

4) Governance in post-war Hungary

5) Dairy Diary

Hope this feeds in to the general stuff-that’s-going-on picture. If you’re not on the list, do please keep checking back.

Exciting news from the Institute of Big Thinks

A new year, a freshly-hatched egg of crazy mess from the right-wing think tanks that are metastasizing in Westminster. The latest piece of wearying cognitive dissonance is by Dr Catherine Hakim, whose Centre for Policy Studies report on ‘feminist myths’ in employment practices is published today. Dr Hakim argues that the battle for equal opportunities has been won (oh, yay!), and that further activity by the all-powerful feminist lobby would be counter-productive. So, at this point you’re thinking: ‘why should I give a tuppenny sod about what the CPS thinks?’. But the problem is, these people are the non-horse-related working parts of Cameron’s brain. Just a few weeks ago, Theresa May gleefully lopped the goolies off the Equalities Act.

We’re about to enter the disorientating thickets of new right thinking, so try to hang on to the following. Women in full-time employment are paid 17 per cent less than men doing equivalent work, rising to 36 per cent for women working part-time. Just 4 per cent of the executive directors of FTSE100 companies are women. Motherhood prompts a slide in women’s earnings and status; the pay gap for mothers who work full time is 21 per cent.

The CPS report doesn’t dispute any of this, but uses it to make some arguments that could politely be described as counter-intuitive. There are three main problems with the analysis: 1) its assumptions, 2) its political impetus, and 3) all of the words. Dr Hakim concedes that equal opportunity policies have had some notable successes, and concludes that they should therefore be discontinued. The fact that the pay gap has remained constant over the last 10 years is adduced as evidence that no more need be done to address it. She asserts that women now have more choices than men, requiring us to believe that educated, capable women are taking poorly-paid, low-status jobs purely because they prefer them. ‘Why are women less likely to achieve the top jobs and associated higher pay?’ she trills, swiftly concluding that there’s no way of knowing and that we therefore needn’t worry ourselves about it. She simply fails to acknowledge the structures that frequently require women to choose between having children and doing well in their professional field.

Those who benefit from the status quo pretend to believe that the current situation arises from the ‘aspirations and preferences of women’, as Dr Hakim argues. Perhaps it needs to be spelled out: even women who gladly choose to stay at home with their children in the early years do not rejoice in the consequent financial penalties and lifelong hobbling of career choices. It will not do to tell us that we have made our beds, and we must lie in them. The waste of women’s non-domestic talent and potential is not just a personal disappointment for those concerned; it distorts and encumbers every area of public and industrial life, and has baleful effects on men and children as well as women.

We are where we are not because of a surfeit of feminist practice, but because of its absence. When it comes to reproduction, equality does not lie in pretending that men and women are exactly the same. Of course we should celebrate and respect those women who do not have children, or who are happy to return to work shortly after giving birth; but the irrefutable truth is that the physical and emotional demands of pregnancy, labour, baby care and breastfeeding have practical consequences. Too many employers remain stubbornly resistant to job-sharing and flexible working, despite the fact that such practices work excellently in almost all contexts. Children require intensive parenting for a comparatively short time; sympathetic employers who support their staff through this period are rewarded with hard work and loyalty in spades.

Dr Hakim and her colleagues on the right make great play of the desirability of free choice, while doing nothing to encourage its availability. Those who wish to improve the lot of women in the labour force should resist the distractions of neo-conservative thinking, and keep their eyes on the prize.

Mass CiF trespass: a proposal

Emboldened by the response to my long, whiny piece about CiF trolls (and befuddled by suet and booze), I’d like to propose that we make Monday 10 January the day of the first mass Comment is Free trespass. The idea is that people of mild temperament will shuffle gently onto CiF threads throughout the day, expressing their views in a thoughtful and respectful way. If nothing else, it will confuse the hell out of the regulars.

Given that you’re all models of reason and good temper, you don’t need any rules. But here are some rules.

1) Don’t be an arse. Once you’ve spent a few minutes on CiF your sensitivity to arsery will become dulled, so try to have a solid sense of your own definition of ‘terrible, terrible arse’ before you log in.

2) If you feel compelled to forcefully address a point made by a troll, remember the ‘shit sandwich’ technique. So:

@angrylittleman13: I do so admire your tenacity. It’s a shame that you employ it to argue that ‘all furriners should be killed’. I disagree with this view because… [insert National Curriculum Key Stage 1 ‘personal and social development’ bullet points here]. However, your syntax is a testament to the power of out-of-the-box thinking.

3) Check in on the environment and development boards to play with the specialised sceptic and xenophobic trolls.

4) At certain points you will become bewildered and disorientated. You will start to wonder whether Harriet Harman did more harm to this country than the Luftwaffe. This is completely normal. Do some Lamaze breathing, have a cup of chamomile tea, read something by Aditya Chakrabortty. In extremis, stroke your Tony Judt action figure.

5) For the love of Christ, don’t link.

Give me a hug and hold my copy of the Beveridge Report. I’m going in.

Sack Kay Burley! No really, just sack her

[This is my entry for Bright Green Scot’s Dick of the Year contest; see the BGS site for other candidates and to cast your vote FOR KAY BURLEY.]

 ‘What are you protesting for?  You might as well
go home and watch it on Sky News.’

If you can watch this clip without shrieking wordlessly into the void, your therapist is better than mine. It’s not just that Burley is a pitifully bad journalist who is no closer to elucidation than she is to cold fusion. It’s not just that she wouldn’t know a De Hondt ballot if it chewed thoughtfully on her stringy, cartilaginous arse. It’s not just that she’s toe-shreddingly rude to David Babbs, whose kindly response (he recognises early on in the proceedings that he’s dealing with a very large toddler) deserves international recognition. It’s not just that she repeats ‘65 per cent of the public voted for a hung parliament!’, as though that meant BUGGER ALL about BUGGER ALL in THIS OR ANY OTHER UNIVERSE. It’s not just that at some point in the collection of shameful episodes that she is pleased to call her career, she has looked upon the works of Rush Limbaugh and thought ‘that, my friends, is how it should be done’. It’s not even that she works for the world’s most evil walnut-masquerading-as-a-billionaire.

No. It’s the squalid, mendacious assertion that political activism is not just risible, but useless. It’s the suggestion – in 2010, of all years – that if you want to change the world, the best thing you can do is abandon a protest and watch the TV instead. The months between May and December exposed Kay Burley as a towering, totemic dick.

[Coda: it’s not fair to ask you to watch the first clip without also linking to the one below. The gently disruptive tactics and the cheerful bathos (‘Sky News is shit!’) will bring your cortisol levels back down.]

CiF trolls: a taxonomy

Like many whey-faced liberals incapable of bench-pressing a budgie, I spend a lot of time with the paper version of the Guardian. I read it, I stroke it, I take it to bed. We all do, right? Right. But sometimes I read something on  Comment is Free – maybe about anthropogenic global warming, or sexual politics, or anything by Polly Toynbee. And there, below the line, is a roiling sea of rage, misanthropy, and the kind of emotional imbalance that can only be the result of steroid abuse, or living with your parents for a really, really long time.

Talkboards are self-perpetuating in tone; unfortunately for the Guardian (and for the relatively sane), the initial colonisation of CiF by rigid humanoids constructed entirely from anger has proved decisive. Thoughtful, discursive types who are happy to concede that on the one hand this, but on the other hand it might be worth considering the other, simply stare in horror and rarely go back. (I know there are decent folk who post on Cif, but even they would surely concede that they’re hard to find.) Instead, the sub-linear hell-circle comprises representatives from the following groups:

The misogynist who isn’t getting any, and hasn’t for some time Who are women anyway? I’ve never met one. When did they start having opinions and stuff? Why don’t they just fuck off?

The swivel-eyed fantasist It’s the CIA. Or Marxists. Or eco-fascists. Or feminists. Let’s face it, these groups all get together on a regular basis to totally decide the direction of world governance. (For reasons I don’t fully understand, the Fantasist is no more likely to correctly place a semi-colon than he is to self-combust.)

The critic Don’t like the latest government policy/opposition suggestion? Feel free to insert a painfully laboured insult about a politician here. It’s so much more interesting than any sort of informed analysis. If you can point out at the same time that the politician in question did PPE at Oxford, then you can rest confident in the knowledge that your powerful polemic will utterly destroy their career. OH WAIT.

The Tory Because the comments on Mail Online just aren’t right-wing enough.

The linker He’s got a theory. It’s based on this link. And this link. And this link. It’s going to rock your world, but he can’t explain it here. You’ve got to read the links. Have you read the links yet? Why aren’t you reading the links?

The japester Closely related to Mike Giggler (via email) from Private Eye. Pops up on every damned thread to post the same joke.

SHOUTY TROLL-CUNTS A miscellaneous category (h/t Anton Vowl).

I’m sure there are more, but I need a few puffs of Ventolin and a lie down before I go back.


Some crowd-sourced hating. We could start dividing these by genus soon, I reckon. Some are not exclusive to CiF by any means, but fall into a greater ‘trolls we have known and those that irritate the piss out of us’ family.

The libertarian All new laws are bad laws. We fear change! (via @EmilyMaryDavis)

The anecdotal arsehole Always knows a family/OAP/quango/GP whose story disproves all data provided (via @Langtry_Girl)

The single-issue obsessive He knows that vaccines are dangerous (nay, evil) and that this is being covered up as part of a shadowy conspiracy of silence (a conspiracy of silence that does not extend to censorship of his tedious conspiracy theory nonsense on CiF). It doesn’t really matter what the topic is, he will soon bring discussion round to his hobby horse one way or another (via @jdc325)

The supercilious sarcast Likes to imagine his dazzling wit will get him a slot on HIGNFY; just confirms he’s pretentious twat (via @splintersunrise)

The superiority jock  All of this is far beneath him, and you’re all stupid (via @katie_allen)

The guy who cannot BELIEVE that the Guardian publishes this NONSENSE (via @mePadraigReidy)

The rape apologist (via @stavvers) Nothing funny to be said about this one, but they’re out in force on the threads about the Assange case. Always refer to women as ‘young ladies’.

The all-purpose pervert (via @Mr603) Clusters damply on threads about prostitution or stripping.

What happened at Cancun?

This is a comprehension exercise for myself as much as anything, but it might be of use to other interested-but-largely-ignorant types.

We are all in this together. (Obviously I put that phrase in to make you cry.) For the first time, rapidly developing economies like China and India are knitted in to the process and are expected to address their rising emissions.

The NGOs are happy. A spokeswoman for the IUCN said that the process is ‘moving away from post-Copenhagen paralysis’. The WWF said that it laid the foundations for a legally-binding deal.

The NGOs are not happy. The WDM objects to the involvement of the World Bank in the Green Climate Fund (see below); FoE International said it is ‘a slap in the face’.

Bolivia is sulking. Evo Morales, as we know, is a Good Thing, not least because of his unique ability to wear jumpers. Bolivia took the awkward squad role at Cancun, objecting to the overturning of previous legally-binding commitments, the implicit acceptance of a temperature rise in excess of 2 degrees, and the involvement of the World Bank in the Green Climate Fund.

Everyone hates Russia and Japan. Usually at these things everyone hates the US and China (and that’s still fun and you can totally do that if you want to), but this time around Russia and Japan lobbied hard to overturn the legally binding aspects of the Kyoto Protocol. They weren’t entirely successful (the final text fudges the issue), but they were bloody obstructive.

We’re all going to fry. The best scientific guess at the moment is that the Cancun deal will result in a temperature rise of between 3 and 4 degrees. The Royal Society’s estimate of how this would pan out is represented here.

There’s going to be a FUND, and actual FUND. The Green Climate Fund provides a mechanism for richer countries to help poorer countries adapt to the effects of climate change. This Fund will in no way pan out like all the other funds that get announced and not fully funded. Nuh-uh. You should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking that.

The UN negotiating process – much like the beetle my son is keeping in a plastic box – is not yet completely dead. The most resonant description of Cancun is that it has ‘saved the process but not the climate’. (Let’s politely ignore the fact that the objective was to save the climate.) After Copenhagen, plenty of people were expecting Cancun to end in tearful shoving-matches between exhausted delegates, UN mediators screaming ‘don’t let the door hit you on the arse on your way out’, and so on. That didn’t happen. In multilateral diplomacy, this now counts as a giant WIN. Don’t look at me like that.

The COP circus moves on to Durban next year. Optimists say that this meeting might result in a legally-binding treaty involving actual commitments. I’m just hoping for another video from these guys. Woot!

Dodging the truth bullets

Amid the mostly positive response (on the web, at least) to Wikileaks’ most recent info-dump, it’s good to see a nuanced position emerging on the role of Assange’s curious vanity project. This position lies somewhere between wholesale data libertarians, for whom the exercise of secrecy or privacy in any state-funded activity is intolerable; and state agencies, whose feelings about freedom of information are pretty similar to cats’ feelings about baths.

As a predictable lefty, I agree that some of the information released by Wikileaks belongs in the public domain, and that its release enables the public to better hold governments to account: the ‘Collateral Murder’ video from April 2010, and the Minton Report into the Trafigura case are examples. But a right-winger, or a libertarian, will have different ideas about what should be released, and therein lies the problem with self-appointed gatekeepers. Wikileaks itself is – you might say, of necessity – an opaque organisation; most of its employees are anonymous. It has placed itself deliberately without the jurisdictions of most of the countries most affected by the information it releases. None of this is to say that government departments or security agencies are satisfactorily transparent or accountable; but they are, at least, the product of a democratic process, and their senior staff are accountable to elected officials.

It’s salutory to remember the effects of one of Wikileaks’ earlier exercises in information-as-emesis; the 2009 CRU hack, in which thousands of private emails between climate scientists were dumped and distributed, devoid of context or explanation, in a process enthusiastically enabled by Assange. Coming a couple of weeks before the Copenhagen COP15 summit, some argue that the Climategate affair contributed to the ruinous failure of the talks, and contributed to an increase in AGW scepticism among the public in Europe and the US. In this clip, Assange winsomely asserts that the CRU hack has had a positive effect on the dialogue around AGW, and remarks:

Fight with the truth. If people shoot truth at each other, then after the bodies are cleared away all that remains is the bullets of truth in the historical record.

This strikes me as a mendacious piece of self-justification that glosses over the illegitimacy of the original leak. The ‘bullets of truth’ represented by the CRU emails are highly contested, and – to the general public – utterly obscured by the manner of the information release, which played into the hands of those who wished to challenge the scientific consensus. And beyond Assange’s posturing, the bodies being fought over in this particular case are those of people across the world who will be worst hit by the effects of climate change.

As others have said, if Assange is so keen on transparency, he could demonstrate his commitment by publishing the details of Wikileaks’ organisational structure. He could also go after the internal details of transnational corporations, say, or the Chinese government. If he continues to act as a passive and unaccountable conduit, an increasing number of observers will question his status as an open data superhero.

So you want to do something to reduce rates of domestic violence?

For those who stand to lose most from October’s spending review, these are anxious times; the cuts are shamefully calculated to strike at the least electorally valuable groups, and the long-term unemployed, asylum-seekers and those with chronic health conditions will all see their meagre circumstances further reduced. But even in this exposed company, the situation of adults and children facing violence within the home is particularly desperate. Cuts in local authority budgets, police funding, housing benefit and legal aid will have consequences that go beyond the loss of dignity and agency that will be borne by other marginalised groups. There will be further injuries and deaths at the hands of abusers.

For those in violent homes, specialist services provided by organisations such as Refuge offer the only realistic prospect of escape. People leaving abusive partners need secure accommodation and support from trained workers; they also need money, clothes, domestic goods, and advice on how to access services without disclosing their whereabouts. Children who have witnessed the sadistic abuse of a parent, or who have suffered violence themselves, need security and counselling.  Until now these packages of care and support have been provided by specialist agencies funded by local authorities, but this fragile structure is threatened.

In April 2009, the financial ringfence was removed from the Supporting People programme, the main mechanism by which local authority funds for housing-related services were reserved for vulnerable groups, including those experiencing violence in the home. Funds for Supporting People services may now be spent by local authorities as they wish.  Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in the draining away of resources from services related to domestic violence; few local councillors, seeing local authority budgets drastically reduced and with an eye on their electors, will argue that such services must be protected at the expense of schools and social care.

The economic downturn adds a twist of urgency. In evidence to a parliamentary committee, the Audit Commission noted that the decision to remove the ringfence ‘was taken in a different regulatory and economic climate’, and that ‘the recession brings further pressures and heightens risk’.  Studies show that compulsory redundancies are linked to increases in domestic violence. The Communities and Local Government select committee expressed concern that services for vulnerable people would be ‘lost in particularly challenging economic circumstances’.

The devolution of decision-making to local authorities is a laudable principle rendered meaningless by the systematic removal of power and money-raising mechanisms from the same bodies. For domestic violence services, it means the reintroduction of the postcode lottery; richer authorities will be able to maintain a decent level of provision, but those in poorer and more rural communities will not. In these areas, women and children will stay put because there is simply nowhere for them to go. Research undertaken by the Scottish government showed that Supporting People services saved money in the long run, partly by enabling providers to intervene before a  crisis point was reached. But such arguments have no traction with a government intent on eviscerating state provision.

There is an overwhelming need for national political leadership, and Theresa May, as both Home Secretary and Minister for Women, can make crucial interventions if she chooses. She could reverse the perception that domestic violence services are an optional extra by introducing a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide places of safety and support that adhere to minimum standards. She could recognise the expertise of specialist providers in the sector, and require authorities to protect service agreements; this would address the obscenity of local authority officers putting abused families on housing waiting lists for up to a year. A national strategy would also acknowledge that people fleeing abuse often cross local boundaries, and that reciprocal arrangements between authorities are crucial. She could reverse the misguided emphasis on high-risk cases, which means that a victim’s needs might not be addressed until the abuser’s violence has escalated – as it almost always will, in the end – to life-threatening levels.

Most crucially, May could reinstate the protection of funds. A report by New Philanthropy Capital quotes a numbing statistic: in 2006, a Devon-based donkey sanctuary raised £20m;  in the same year, the total funding disbursed to Refuge, Women’s Aid and Eaves Housing was £17m. If the future of domestic violence funding is left to discretionary local authority spending and the beauty parade of voluntarily funded good causes, rescued animals will continue to be better cared for than people who are being brutalised in their own homes. Alternatively,  we could demand more from those in high office, starting with a financial and social ringfence around some of the most miserable and voiceless people in our communities.

We are reasonable people

A common strand runs through the recent twin twitterstorm over Paul Chambers and Gareth Compton, and connects both cases to the current efforts to reform England’s libel laws. That strand is the law’s mulish reluctance to acknowlege the difference between serious statements and ones that are plainly humourous. And yet US law provides an elegant test of what is prosecutably serious and what is not, if UK legislators could only be persuaded to take it up: could a reasonable person believe that defendant’s assertion or statement was seriously meant?

It can be difficult to draw parallels between the US and the UK where freedom of speech is concerned, given the primacy accorded to the First Amendment; Brits have no recourse to such fundamental codified principles. But let’s not be blinded by our colonial cousins’ adorably quaint customs. At the state level, where the relevant laws are made, most bills contain a simple defence to libel or slander. If an assertion is plainly hyperbolic or parodic; if it is rhetorical; if it is not intended to be believed; if its purpose, simply, is to make people laugh – it cannot be defamatory.

US case law provides refreshing examples of the influence of this civilised formula. In the famous case of Hustler Magazine vs Falwell (dramatised in The People vs Larry Flynt), the egregious Jerry Falwell sued the equally-but-differently egregious porn rag for libel arising from the publication of a cartoon which, among other things, ‘portrayed the respondent as having engaged in a drunken incestuous rendezvous with his mother in an outhouse’. The original jury dismissed the libel claim with ease, finding that the parody could not ‘reasonably be understood as describing actual facts or events’. (Falwell’s parallel claim for emotional distress found its way to the Supreme Court, which found in Hustler‘s favour.) The case of New Times vs Isaacks, in which a county district attorney sued an alternative newspaper for a parodic news story concerning Where the Wild Things Are, is even more refreshing: the details (including a fictional bailiff describing the difficulty of finding child-sized handcuffs, and a fictional school official saying ‘Frankly, these kids scare the crap out of me’) are worth reading.

Imagine a parallel universe in which the UK had adopted this principle. Ian Hislop would be entirely unfamiliar with the layout of the Royal Courts of Justice. Satirical news programmes would not be littered with the tedious suffix ‘allegedly’. Mumsnet would not have been very nearly closed down by an action arising from a poster’s aside about Gina Ford’s predeliction for strapping babies to rockets and firing them into Lebanon. Gareth Compton would still be a councillor in Edgbaston instead of facing professional ruin, and Paul Chambers would just be some guy on Twitter.

It’s all far too sensible to catch on.