Asking men to reveal their salary will end in tears – for women

This Thursday marks Equal Pay Day, the day of the year when women effectively start working for nothing compared with men
This Thursday marks Equal Pay Day, the day of the year when women effectively start working for nothing compared with men Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

“If you’re not outraged,” read the quote beneath the Venus symbol on my waitress’s T-shirt the other day, “you’re not paying attention.” Chance would be a fine thing. 

I realise women are no longer society’s victims-in-chief – toppled, as we have been, by the trans brigade – but it’s hard to imagine female outrage getting much more attention than it does now. Whether it’s galvanising every leading lady in film, TV and advertising campaigns, or being cynically commoditised by the makers of T-shirts like my waitress’s, that outrage is everywhere.

And I can’t work myself up into a matching state when the targets seem to include Mother Nature (why should we suffer the indignity of periods, childbirth and the menopause?) and the male cabbie calling us “love”. But in terms of outrage, the gender pay gap takes me from 0-60 every time.

That women should still be being paid less than men for doing exactly the same jobs in 2019 is so wrong, it’s almost laughable. Only rather than laugh, most women will read the rash of statistics that appear in the build-up to Equal Pay Day on Thursday – the day of the year when women effectively start working for nothing compared with men – through parted fingers. Another year has passed and that date still hasn’t been bumped forward.

This week, however, will see the launch of the most concerted campaign yet, when, as part of a new Equal Pay Act, more than 100 of the country’s highest-achieving women in business, law, politics, the media and the arts will call for all women to be told exactly what their male colleagues earn, so that they can demand the same. 

The names on that list are illustrious and varied enough to give us hope for 2020: from Moya Greene – the chief executive of Royal Mail until last year – and Emma Walmsley, head of GlaxoSmithKline, to ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall and broadcaster Clare Balding.

The BBC's former China editor Carrie Gracie received around £280,000 in back pay from the BBC, together with a public apology, after winning her gender pay battle Credit: Kate Peters

But branding the group as “#MeTooPay” was surely a mistake. And if the campaign doesn’t pay close attention to the collateral damage of #MeToo and learn from the miscalculations and blunders made along the way, it risks far worse than failure.

When few would argue that Me Too Part I was an unqualified success, why turn Equal Pay into its Part II? After all, almost two and a half years on, we may have reached a point where high-profile predators are being routinely exposed and held to account, but there is still no evidence that this call-out culture has filtered down to less high-profile work environments.

What statistics have shown, however, is that that men are now increasingly shying away from one-on-one interactions with women at work – crucial interactions that include mentoring and one-on-one work meetings – and, worse still, that women may be less likely to be hired for jobs where they’ll be required to interact with men. Now for the really bad news: that’s most jobs.

How did this happen? By us ignoring those all-important shades of grey. 

Stick a hashtag in front of anything, and you immediately reduce a concept or debate to its most infantile and least workable form. And with Equal Pay, not every high-profile legal battle waged has been the perfect example. Yes, it was right that the BBC’s former China editor Carrie Gracie received a payout and apology from the corporation back in 2018. But if you look at Gracie’s colleague, Samira Ahmed, who is currently suing the BBC for £693,245 in lost earnings, claiming she was being paid 85 per cent less than her male equivalent, the case is far less straightforward.

As commendable as it is for Ahmed to have made a stand in asking “why the BBC thinks I am worth only a sixth of the value of the work of a man doing a very similar job”, and highlighting what is indeed a grotesquely large pay disparity, the man she has chosen to compare herself to is Jeremy Vine, who isn’t her equal in “star power” terms, and whose programme, Points of View, is – as the BBC pointed out – “an entertainment programme with a long history” and “a household name with the public”… while Ahmed’s Newswatch on the BBC News channel isn’t.

“Star power” doesn’t just exist in the high-profile worlds of media and showbusiness, but far more run-of-the-mill industries. In the service industry, for example, a waiter might have a particular talent, ability or “star quality” in making his clientele feel welcome that his female counterpart may lack – or vice versa.

Imagine for a moment what enforced transparency on salaries across the board would actually entail. Not every job will be directly comparable, and unless we want to find ourselves in the “everyone’s a winner” culture schools have been urged to embrace, bosses would need to make overt and explicit value judgments about the competence, efficiency and possibly even plain likeability of the employee in question, which could in itself be construed as a MeToo-style assault on self-esteem.

Then once everyone’s salary is common knowledge, workplaces could easily become breeding grounds for anger and resentment, and with social media now the natural place to air those resentments, every private pay dispute made public.

We all have our individual worth as employees, and evaluating that human worth will be as complicated as evaluating which human interactions are “appropriate” and “inappropriate”. With both #MeToo and #MeTooPay, there will be instances where what’s right and wrong, fair or unfair, are obvious – but there will also be a million shades of grey.

And if the campaign group are to move things forward, not backwards, it’s vital this be done sensitively, sensibly – and with the awareness that, to paraphrase Orwell, everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.

Read Celia Walden at telegraph.co.uk every Monday, from 7pm