A recent survey from the Chartered Management Institute shows that female executives earn an average of £400,o00 less than their male colleagues over their working lifetimes. As a feminist, just how bothered about this should I be? After all, it’s a minority issue, focusing on a privileged group. Aren’t there more important things to deal with? The truth is, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about executive pay, male or female, what with two kids, a non-exec beta-female job and being fairly busy.
In this respect I am a bit – but not a lot – like Angela Ahrendts, the female chief executive of Burberry. Ahrendts doesn’t think about the pay gap much, either:
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this, what with three kids, running the company and being flat out busy.
Speaking as a low-level, non-aspirational version of Ahrendts – fewer kids, lower earnings, less go-getting-ness in general – I can see what she means. Giving a shit about stuff isn’t just time-consuming, it’s also seriously uncool. And besides, does it really matter? Once you’ve earned your million, do you really miss that extra £400,000? (Not having earned my million, I wouldn’t know. But I suspect that women who are openly arsed about the extra £400,000 are less likely to earn the million in the first place.)
Ahrendts believes that boardroom gender quotas are “dangerous” (the extreme language perhaps a reflection of the ego-driven environment in which she operates):
Whether it’s countries or companies, it’s about putting the best person in the job who can unite people and create value. A man could do this job just as well as I can.
Or a woman, she might – but doesn’t – add. Alas, we all know that “the best person in the job” is often quite easy to replace. Just how “dangerous” is it for companies to have more well-qualified women at the helm? Or is the real “danger” closer to home – striking at the self-perception of a particular breed of female business leader, those who can, for the time being at least, see themselves as rare and special? Women who already know that, in financial terms, they are worth more than most people. Being the only woman in the room might create challenges, but it also adds an extra sheen – some men might be your equal, but at least no other women are.
I wonder if this is why Ahrendts feels it’s acceptable for her to play the mummy card, dropping in those all-important references to her children and busy lifestyle, precisely the things which the average female employee tries to keep under wraps. Imbalances in unpaid domestic duties and childcare responsibilities – just two of the many things which restrict the opportunities of women in the workplace – are dismissed in one fell swoop. Well, I can manage. You other women just can’t hack it. It’s all rather reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s recent comments on high-powered jobs and motherhood, featured in Marie Claire and quoted in the Huffington Post:
“Some women are not comfortable working at the pace and intensity you have to work at in these jobs. … Other women don’t break a sweat,” she said. “They have four or five, six kids. They’re highly organized, they have very supportive networks.”
There’s probably no need for me to point out that Clinton herself had only one child plus a “supportive network” that included lots of money (as to whether or not she tended to perspire, I have no idea). I suppose the very fact that I have pointed it out just makes me sound whiny and envious. But that’s just what women such as Clinton and Ahrendts manage to do, suggesting that the very idea of inequality is silly and pathetic. It’s a very business-friendly tactic, but it does nothing for those of us who aren’t clawing our way up the greasy pole, other than reinforce the impression that we little people – male or female, parents or not – deserve no more than we get.
Angela Ahrendts is wealthy and shrewd enough to exploit her status as a mother to boost her status as a businesswoman. I do both and I don’t complain. Women for whom motherhood poses more serious challenges when it comes to holding down a job – those who simply can’t afford to pay for childcare, or who don’t have anyone willing to share the unpaid labour, for instance – don’t get to enjoy this luxury. Some of the challenges might be shared, but motherhood is not a great leveler for the whole of womankind. And while we might not be all that bothered if women such as Angela Ahrendts aren’t getting precisely the same overblown bonuses as their male counterparts, we should worry about them co-opting our struggles, only the better to dismiss them.