On the 26th of March, Cardiff University was visited by Baroness Randerson. The theme of the talk she gave was ostensibly ‘Equal Pay at 45 – Where next for Women’s Equality’ but may more accurately have been entitled ‘The Coalition Government – A Party Political Broadcast’.
Baroness Randerson’s credentials are undeniably impressive; a life peer since 2011 and appointed Parliamentary under Secretary of State of the Welsh Office in 2012. She is the first female Welsh Liberal Democrat to hold office in Westminster and has served as ‘Health and Social Services Equal Opportunities and Finance Spokesperson’ for the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
Baroness Randerson opened the evening with some well received anecdotes about life in the early 1970s when the Equal Pay Act was introduced and SHOCK HORROR she happened to earn more than her husband, much to the bewilderment of the Inland Revenue. Pleasantries over, we heard some alarming statistics that we are all too familiar with; the UK has the 6th largest pay gap between men and women in the EU, the gender pay gap for all employees currently stands at 19.1% and the dearth of women in top roles means that only 25% of Chief Executives are female. So far, so depressing.
What came next, however, was thirty minutes of barely disguised electioneering.
Baroness Randerson reminded us that the Lib Dems are committed to enacting legislation which would force the hand of medium to large companies in to publishing the average salaries of their male and female workers. So progressive. Until we realise that this was a provision of the original Equality Act Legislation in 2010 driven by the Labour Party. Section 78 of the Act provides ‘Regulations may require employers to publish information relating to the pay of employees for the purpose of showing whether, by reference to factors of such description as is prescribed, there are differences in the pay of male and female employees.’ The Act also provides for a fine of up to £5000 for any business employing more than 250 who fails to provide this information annually. It is the very Coalition Government which Baroness Randerson enthuses over which has systematically failed to enact this provision. We do have the watered down Equality Act 2010 (Equal Pay Audits) Regulations 2014 which means that companies who lose a sex discrimination case in relation to pay must provide an audit revealing their gender pay gap within 28 days. This of course requires plucky individuals to take their employers (or former employers) to court (a tall order for most) and then to actually surmount the hurdles put in their way to ultimately win the case, before a company is forced to provide an audit. This completely ignores the insidious and pervasive nature of the gender pay gap and makes for patchy enforcement against employers as the EA 2010 lacks the ‘teeth’ to oblige them to do very much at all. Forgive me if I am not particularly excited to learn that the Lib Dems really are committed to bringing this in, it’s five years overdue, after all.
Baroness Randerson also discussed other Lib Dem policies such as increased paternity leave, an expansion of free child care and raising the tax free allowance. All great policies which are difficult to argue against and were certainly well received by the friendly ‘home’ audience. (Clearly no Tories were present as she wasn’t questioned on how the Party were intending to fund these measures).
As the evening drew to a close, Baroness Randerson was asked a question by a young student who stated that ‘Men and women are different, so we are never going to get even numbers of people in certain jobs, isn’t that right? Whilst it’s easy to see the logic in at least part of what the girl said (I suspect most feminists would not begrudge a 51/49 gender split in Chief Executive positions or 52/48 in nursing for example), I soon found myself blinking furiously in Baroness Randerson’s direction, poised to hear those words which have now become music to my ears, ‘The evidence to suggest a difference with men and women’s brains is not incontrovertible.’
Unfortunately, Randerson’s reply was ‘Yes, well men and women are different.’ I feel like I should carry around copies of the excellent ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine for future such emergencies.
Baroness Randerson began her talk with her anecdote, so in response, I will end my piece with my own. As a child I owned a plastic playset of a kitchen, so far so gender conforming. From the age of about 5, my favourite play time activity became ‘playing kitchen’. For 5 year old me, that involved noting down my parents’ ‘orders’ like a waitress with a pad and pencil, haphazardly scooping some plastic play fruit on a plate then handing it to my parents who had to firstly pretend to enjoy their meal but then find some sort of flaw with the food. Flaw found, they would call the ‘waitress’ over and I would listen to their complaint but stubbornly refuse to take the food back. I would then ask my parents if they’d like to see the manager. My parents would then solemnly state that, yes they would quite like to speak to the manager, actually. At this point, I would then turn around and rub my chubby hands with glee whilst dramatically yelling BUT I, I AM THE MANAGER!
I’m glad to say that I believe my customer service skills may have improved but my refusal to abide by gender norms has never left me.
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by Leanne Teahan