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Period Problems

I’m quite enthusiastic about reasoned debate, even when (or especially when) it is controversial and involves subjects not normally discussed. Examples of topics which should be open to reasoned discussion but which are often off limits include: the possible merits of regimes considered to be the enemy (such as al Qaeda), real differences between groups of people (such as different races), and differences between men and women.

In most cases it is considered appropriate to demonstrate bias in one direction but not another. For example, using the word “freedom” in conjunction with western military forces is fine but call a “terrorist” a freedom fighter and you are branded a criminal. Or admire the achievements of a racial minority as much as you want but never suggest the dominant race (yes, I know races don’t technically exist) has any advantages. And saying a woman has done a great job because she’s a female is admired but what about the opposite?

So in some ways I was quite surprised with Alasdair Thompson’s courage in stating his beliefs regarding why pay inequity between men and women exists. But in other ways I was rather disgusted at his performance.

His argument seemed to be that women are paid less because they are less productive, and the major reason they are less productive because they take more sick leave, and a large factor in the increased sick leave is period problems.

There are several issues here: first, are women less productive; second, do they take more sick leave; third, is that because of problems relating to periods; fourth, if all that is true should they be penalised because of it; and finally, is this a discussion we should be even allowing instead of just getting on with improving pay inequity.

OK, so those are the issues (actually there is one more but I’ll leave that to the end of this entry) so let’s look at them…

Are women less productive? I have never been able to find a reputable and consistent source of information on this, although there are studies indicating differences they are hard to use to reach an overall conclusion. Not only that but I think productivity is a difficult thing to measure and is often largely a matter of perception and personal bias more than anything else.

So saying women are less productive than men isn’t necessarily wrong but it is highly debatable. Thompson himself mentioned several anecdotes but couldn’t provide any real data even when challenged on the topic.

But let’s just accept the highly doubtful claim about productivity and move on to point two: do women take more sick leave? Numerous studies seem to indicate that this is actually true. The figure seems to be that women take about one and a half times as much short term sick leave as men, but about the same long term leave. Studies over several years and in multiple countries seem to be consistent on this.

Again Thompson had only anecdotes on this point which seems to indicate that if he was right it was more through luck than real fact finding. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt at this point and move on.

Is the extra leave women take due to menstrual related problems? It’s difficult to tell because of the lack of many good studies but there seems to be some interest – from governments, companies, unions, and employees – in leave specifically to cater for this problem. So again there is no good data supporting the idea (and yet again Thompson just presented personal anecdotes) so the best I could say is that the idea isn’t impossible.

What about point 4? Even if all of the preceding points are true and women really are less productive because of what Thompson calls “monthly sickness” is it fair to penalise them because of it? Maybe in the sick business focussed world he lives in that would be justifiable but I think the majority of people are backing away from that purely money based view of what is right and wrong.

I also can’t help but think that a lot of the perception of productivity is just that. It’s an assumption reinforced by supporting incidents and where negating evidence is conveniently forgotten. Thompson says his organisation fully supports equal pay and all of the other reforms which have been introduced, but these are legal requirements so I would have to wonder whether he would be quite as supportive if they weren’t law.

And I would also be interested to hear his views on youth rates. The government wants to allow young workers to be paid less than the minimum wage. This is a view which I am sure I have heard most employers (including Thompson’s organisation) support. What happened to equal pay for equal productivity there? If minimum rates of pay irrespective of age was no longer a legal requirement would employers still support it just because it’s the right thing to do? Of course not!

So after all of the above I come to the final point: is this a discussion we should even be having? I think so because everything is worth discussing. But I think the way it has been handled in this case is so poor that it is not only going to make Thompson’s view look ridiculous (presumably the opposite to what he intended) but it is also going to make it harder for anyone to start a more useful, fact-based, discussion on the subject.

But what was the extra point I mentioned at the start? Just this: people like Thompson really don’t give employers good positive public relations. He comes across as an ignorant, arrogant, nasty, self-centered, rude, inflexible fool. The way he bullied his way through the interview on TV last night was quite shocking. I have never seen anyone handle a situation like that so poorly before. So another word to be added to the already extensive list of criticisms is incompetent!

It’s worrying that employers would think it’s OK to have someone like this representing them (even if they are considering firing him now because of public pressure), but I have seen examples of that sort of stupidity and ignorance in employers too. They have grown to have a very inflated idea of their own value, and when their authority is challenged – even when it is through asking reasonable questions that they don’t like (like those in the interview) – they resort to bullying, intimidating, or just refusing to cooperate.

And I must comment on his paranoid conspiracy ideas regarding who is criticising him. Apparently he thinks his critics are political opponents (mainly from the Labour Party), or socialists or communists. That’s another example of unsubstantiated mindless drivel which just makes him look like an even bigger buffoon than had already been apparent. Maybe he should just take the advice some commentators offered tonight: “just shut up”.

The best thing about this incident is perhaps that we now see the way that many employers really do think when their usual disguise of civility is removed. I hope it makes people think about what sort of society we want: one which gives this sort of person even more power or one which is more interested in the best outcome for the majority. If this represents the way a lot of our “esteemed” business leaders really think then I think we should be worried… even if you’re not a woman!

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