IT IS probably easier to ask a woman a personal question, even an awkward conversation-stopping one, than to ask her how much she earns.
Somehow, the subject of pay packets continues to be a social taboo. A good (female) friend put it bluntly and beautifully when she said: “We’re more prudish about money than we are about sex.” And she has a point.
The idea that it’s rude to talk about your wage packet, whatever your gender, persists. However, an omerta on pay puts all workers at a disadvantage. If you don’t know what your colleagues are being paid, how can you negotiate your own salary?
That’s why the renewed focus on the gender pay gap is a blessed thing.
Yes, it’s hard to identify with the type of telephone-number salaries that were forced out of the BBC in a recent review. The gap between its highest paid man (Chris Evans on a mind-blowing £2.2m, about €2.45m) and its highest-paid woman (Claudia Winkleman on a paltry £450,000-plus) is shocking, but not anywhere near as shocking as the gap between the stars and us ordinary mortals.
It’s easy to feel the same about the big names on six-figure salaries at our own national broadcaster, RTÉ.
However, this week, several woman broadcasters at the station spoke out on the issue of pay transparency, prompting the station to announce a gender equality review.
These were not the top earners but professional working journalists who bring us the news every day; the likes of education correspondent Emma O’Kelly and political correspondent Martina Fitzgerald.
I punched the air when the latter wrote about the subject, so eloquently and convincingly, in the Irish Times this week.
“Let’s be clear,” she wrote, “gender pay equality is not a political issue. It’s a legal right. Ireland has had equal pay legislation for more than 40 years — the average length of a working career.”
She also made the point that the debate on pay parity was not just an issue for broadcasters, or indeed journalists, but for women in all industries.
She is absolutely right. It’s time to find out the real extent of pay disparity in Ireland and figure out ways to tackle it. Legislation forcing employers to publish pay data might help, but it’s also time to discuss and expose the attitudes that have kept the gap there for so long.
There is simply no argument against equal pay for equal work that I can think of, but I was grateful to Casualty actor Tom Chambers for providing us with one. “My wife works really hard as a stay-at-home mum, but I’m the only one bringing in a salary for our family,” he explained recently. “Many men’s salaries aren’t just for them, it’s for their wife and children, too.”
The poor man was pilloried for his remarks, prompting outrage and humour in equal measure. (My favourite came from one incensed Tweeter: “I’d like to withdraw the bit of my TV licence that goes to Tom Chambers and pay it directly to his wife, can you please advise, thx.”)
However, Chambers’ comments, the backlash and his subsequent apology proved to be a positive thing because they showed how deeply ingrained the notion that men are worth more than women is.
According to European Commission statistics published in 2016, the gap between Irish men and women’s earnings in 2014 was 13.9%, a little less than in 2012 (14.4%).
I suppose we should be grateful that the figure is less than the EU average, which stands at 16.7%.
However, that is only part of the story. When you take into account the many disadvantages that working women face (lower hourly earnings, fewer hours, lower employment rates because they are caring for children or relatives), the gap rises to a whopping 34.7%.
So where do we start?
As Martina Fitzgerald said, this is an issue that affects all women — and every single one of us has a role to play in outing the bosses who pay women less.
One of my own heroes is a businesswoman friend who wondered why she was not being remunerated properly after she found herself doing a more senior role without getting the title and the pay increase to go with it.
She went to human resources and asked for a raise — a challenge in itself — and when it was turned down, she said straight out: “I can only assume that the reason I’m not being paid for the work I’m doing is because I’m a woman.” HR person (let’s not reveal gender) went into a spin and agreed a wage increase there and then.
Even Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean-In, had to be coaxed into negotiating her pay deal when she first joined the company, so my plucky friend deserves extra kudos.
But how many of us have the bottle to stand up and ask for our due? It’s far from easy and you’re often made to feel uncomfortable for tackling the issue.
Once, in another lifetime when working in a bank as a student in Paris, I happened to find out that the bonuses paid to everyone were not equal. A man, on the same pay scale and with the same title as me, had received twice what I had.
Back then, I was bold enough and brass-necked enough to ask the boss why that was so. There was an awkward exchange and a muttered promise that the shortfall would be made up in the next pay packet. It was, but it was given begrudgingly and that somehow took all the good out of it.
Worse than that, it made me reluctant to broach the subject of money again. Now that the issue is in the news again, let’s hope women in paid jobs in every sector will start talking about money, comparing notes and challenging the people who pay them to honour the principle that equal work deserves equal pay.