Enough rope

On Mike Hosking’s Newstalk ZB show this morning, a discussion of the gender pay gap and Catherine Delahunty’s bill on the topic — and an object lesson in not believing your own hype:

Alasdair Thompson [Employers & Manufacturers’ Association CEO]: “Let me get down to tin tacks here. It is unfortunate, if you like, that men and women are different –“
Helen Kelly [Council of Trade Unions President]: [incredulous laughter]
AT: “– they are. The fact is, women have babies, they take time out of their careers to have babies. Women have — look, I don’t like saying this, this is how contentious this is, but here’s a fact of life. If you really want to keep some statistics, look at who takes the most sick leave. Why do they take the most sick leave? Women do in general. Why? Because, ah, you know, once a month they have sick problems. Not all women, but some do. They have children that they have to take time off to go home and take leave of. Therefore their productivity — not their fault, it’s … it may be because they haven’t got it sorted out with their partners, where the partners take more responsibility for what happens outside work. There are all of these issues, and none of this is covered in these statistics that this bill wants to sort out. Now, I’m sorry, I don’t like saying these things because it sounds like I’m sexist, but it’s a fact of life.”
HK: “Sure does, Alasdair, I’m glad you said them, it’s fantastic. I let you go on that one.”


Helen Kelly played Alasdair Thompson like a harp here. For a start, his argument is bogus — as Kelly says, the figures don’t back it up in the general case, and where they do back it up there’s a host of confounding variables. (For just one of many possible objections, since women already earn less than men for the same work, there’s an advantage at the margin where they retain the primary childcare responsibility, all else being equal. On the basis of this Thompson says they should be further penalised.)

But quite apart from the standard of the argument, Thompson ended up defending the indefensible in indefensible terms. It’s one thing to defend the indefensible in terms that seem reasonable, quite another to do so in terms that are repugnant. Rather than arguing the difference of interpretation and retaining the dignity of a Captain of Industry, a benevolent leader of men (and women) who cares about their wellbeing, he slipped into the worst sort of boss-man-splaining. This might work just fine in boardrooms where the interests of those present are aligned, but it’s not much good in the public sphere. He clearly realised this, but only once he had committed to it: his delivery was garbled and disjointed, clearly ad-hoc, and so heavily caveated that it’s hard to take any of it seriously.

But that’s what we must do. This guy is an experienced representative of New Zealand’s employers, speaking in his official capacity on a topic for which he had (or ought to have) prepared, in a mainstream media outlet. We are entitled to take him at his word, and we should thank him for telling us what he really thinks. And we should thank Helen Kelly for giving him such a plum opportunity to do so.

Update: Not one to do things by halves, Thompson has doubled — or, tripled down, with a press release arguing that women are paid less because they’re just not worth as much, and statements to the Herald blaming “socialists”, “Labour” and “unions” and claiming 90% support for his position. That number has now mysteriously vanished from the Herald’s story, and comments by readers of the National Business Review — Thompson’s natural constituency — are running 80-20 against him at the time of writing this update.

You could say he’s quadrupled down, even, since he’s now taken to twitter, responding to criticism and barbed quips with cut & pasted lines from his press release. A more epic fail is hard to envisage.


15 thoughts on “Enough rope

  1. That was great. Imagine being a female in his household. I find his comments running very close to those made by Singaporean employers when arguing against paid maternity leave (Singapore has an atrocious lack of regulations regarding maternity, to include no legal prohibitions on women being fired in the first 6 months of pregnancy). The whole “women are, errr, different” argument gets aired regularly in SG when employment issues are discussed, so given that it is used as a model by the NZ corporate elite, it is no surprise that ole’ Alisdair saw fit to rephrase it for local consumption.

    If this is indeed the mindset of the corporate elite, it is no wonder the country appears to be stagnating.

  2. “…Ms Delahunty said Mr Thompson’s ideas were “19th Century” and a possible breach of the Equal Pay Act 1972…”


    That was almost forty years ago. And still they live…

  3. The argument is easily settled. Add up what the employee earns the company while at work, subtract all the costs of paid days off divide what remains by the hours worked and then you are left with what the employee is actually worth.
    “…no wonder the country appears to be stagnating…”
    The country is stagnating because too many people are getting pay without producing a good. It’s basic reality.

  4. jon:

    Are you referring to those on the dole, public employees, teachers or service sector workers? I only mention these four categories as examples because you do not elaborate on what “producing a good” consists of. Those on the dole (which if I recall correctly are around 12 percent of the employable population) are non-producers or at least more consumers rather than producers of wealth. But what about those whose productivity outputs are not tangible or easily measured?

    Most employees do not earn companies anything. They add value to the product, but the earnings are determined by managers based on the rate of profit and the subtractions required to cover labour, marketing and input factor costs. Thus trying to calculate employee worth as the product of their individual earnings contribution minus the costs of their (non-legislated) days off is a useless exercise.

    It might do the corporates some good to ponder the question of “morale” and its impact on the workplace. It may not be tangible or measurable but it sure has a lot to do with relative productivity–something the “new management” theorists seem to have missed.

  5. I was impressed by the fact that he doesn’t just express a rather odd view about menstruation, but he seems to be saying that men are lazy worthless layabouts who don’t pull their weight around the home or care for their children. Oh, and that men are incapable of actually doing those things without their women sorting them out.

    It may be a statement which reinforces discrimination about women, but it’s far more insulting about men. All you guys should be pleased to know that the EMA thinks your general selfish laziness is responsibility for our general poor productivity.

    I suspect he thought he was digging himself out of a hole when he said that :)

  6. Worth watching the TV3 interview. It has bullying, a complete lack of self awareness, blind leaps from anecdata to … something, and free advice about what painkillers we should be using for period pain.

    And the Campbell Live interview with the epic, and totally justified, line by Mihingarangi Forbes of “you … stood in my face and yelled at me”

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  8. Thanks Lew, for the link.

    I was going to make a comment about the interview but then again, it speaks for itself (without the bullying weirdness at the end that was aired later). Two thoughts, though.

    1) Note to National: you need to make Alisdair the spokesperson for the dangers of Kronic, ’cause no one in a position of semi-responsibility could be that high that early on booze alone.

    2) Informal poll: should Alisdair be allowed to drive heavy machinery more than once a month?

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  10. Translate him into Arabic and play it over Libyan state radio and see if anyone can tell the difference from the good Colonel’s original stuff.

  11. Well said AT! ITs the truth and it hurts…hear the PC squeal in faux outrage at someone saying it like it is.

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  13. Hi,

    I also hated the comment that he made about the new solo dad. How he was about to cut his hours / pay, because he had lost his partner, and now was rasing a child alone.
    Of course his work rate will drop!! Where is the compassion in this work environment??
    Morale at this work place must be at an all time low today (and I thought mine was bad !!)

    Anyway .. thanks for Media 101 …


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