On Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon yesterday, Kathryn Ryan provided a graphic lesson in why the Alasdair Thompson affair became so overheated.
Interviewing Bruce Goldsworthy, who took over the running of the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) after Thompson was sacked for his comments about women’s productivity, Ryan left listeners in no doubt about where she stood on the issue.
Normally a scrupulously fair and even-handed interviewer, she adopted an uncharacteristic hectoring tone – unnecessarily, I thought, since Goldsworthy seemed almost indecently keen to join her in rubbishing his former boss.
It would be fair to assume, on the basis of this interview, that Ryan is one of the many women who regard Thompson as a sexist dinosaur for whom burning at the stake would be too charitable a fate.
I thought that if any woman journalist could approach this issue coolly and dispassionately, it would be Ryan. But no: the hounding of Thompson continues even after his career was destroyed as punishment for what was, at worst, an infelicitous choice of words.
This was disappointing, but revealing. It exposed the extent to which the media debate about Thompson has been framed in a context in which most women insist on seeing themselves as victims of a male conspiracy.
Female journalists, rather than exercising the professional detachment that their job demands, seem to have taken Thompson’s comments as a personal attack and responded accordingly. On this issue, they are women first and journalists second. When even someone of Ryan’s reputation can’t maintain a semblance of impartiality, what hope is there for balanced coverage?
It’s Thompson’s unfortunate fate to have been made the scapegoat for women’s anger and resentment at being disadvantaged in the workplace (if indeed they are). In effect he has been punished because the world is not quite as they would like it to be.
But we are left with the fact that “pay equity”, along with equally fuzzy associated terms such as “flexibility” and “family-friendly workplaces”, is easier to talk about than to implement. As eager as he was to portray himself as a sensitive New Age kind of guy, and thus to distance himself from Thompson, even Goldsworthy stumbled when Ryan challenged him on why employers weren’t leading the march to a glorious Utopia where women can effortlessly juggle work and parenthood without penalty.
Women’s Affairs Minister Hekia Parata took a more realistic line when she acknowledged the complexities of the pay equity issue in the New Zealand Herald yesterday. Asked for comment on an opinion poll that found 65 per cent of women thought they were paid less than men simply because they were women, she rightly criticised the “simplistic” poll question.
She reminded us that “women are still the only child bearers, women tend to work part time more, women tend to be in lower paid industries, women seek more flexible working hours, so there are some parts of that pay gap that you would have to exclude for those reasons”. Oddly enough, these are pretty much the points that Thompson tried to make.
The most striking lesson to emerge from the furore over Thompson is that 41 years after Germaine Greer wrote The Female Eunuch, the gender war is still raging. I admit this comes as a surprise to me, but I’m probably a sexist dinosaur too.
Footnote: Asked about the appointment of a new EMA chief executive, Goldsworthy told Ryan that the organisation wouldn’t be appointing a woman just to appease the Thompson-haters. But given the way the EMA threw Thompson to the wolves, and its apparent eagerness to ingratiate itself with the tut-tutters, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.