There’s the pussy-grabbing, fat-shaming, Presidential brand of sexism, and then there’s the Prime Ministerial variety. Cleverer, more insidious and often – though not always – cloaked in a veneer of old Etonian charm.
As 100,000 men and women marched in London this weekend against Trump’s unabashed misogyny, I reflected ruefully on David Cameron’s grandiose promises back in 2015 to, “end the gender pay gap in a generation”. Then, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric knew no bounds. There was “no true opportunity without equality,” he claimed, and no place for a pay gap in modern British society. Writing in the Times newspaper, Cameron vowed unequivocally to “cast sunlight on discrepancies” between male and female pay.
I’ll say one thing for the new President. Trump may be unashamedly sexist – but at least with him you know where you stand (at a safe distance from those tiny hands, ideally). Cameron, on the other hand, forced to confront the electoral clout of the ‘Mumsnet vote’ was willing to say anything to curry favour with women. Alas, with his 2015 general election win secured, his apparent commitment to gender equality was exposed as so much manifesto hot air.
Last year, when it came to imposing a new junior doctor contract in the NHS – the country’s biggest employer, with 1.2 million staff – the government didn’t even try to hide the gender discrimination at the heart of the new contract. Instead, the Department of Health’s Equality Impact Assessment admitted that the contract would discriminate against female doctors, yet claimed that, “any adverse effect on women is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate end”. It seemed that when not intrinsic to electoral success, women were mere collateral damage, to be thrown under a bus when required.
The new contract is set to overturn generations of fighting for gender equality within the medical profession by financial penalising part-time doctors, the vast majority of whom are women. Cameron’s contract abolishes ‘annual increments’ for doctors – the small annual pay rises that used to help mitigate against the way in which the pro-rata pay of full-time doctors outstripped that of their part-time colleagues over time. The redistribution of pay from female to male doctors will make it financially impossible for some women to remain in medicine, with the inevitable consequence of making medicine more male. No wonder Heidi Alexander MP, the then Shadow Health Secretary, said the equality assessment had led to “many women rightly questioning whether they’ve woken up in a different century”.
Contrary to Cameron’s fine words on gender pay gaps, the new contact will ensure that, as doctors progress through their training, we will see ever-widening gender pay gaps in medicine. How precisely do I explain that to my young son and daughter? This government may be happy to watch our children grow up in a society that treats women as essentially the same as men, just that little bit cheaper, but I am not. And nor, I believe, are many of us, as this weekend’s protests demonstrate so eloquently.
For the first four years I worked as a doctor, my childcare costs outstripped my income such that I was a net financial drain on my family. Each year I worked in the NHS, I cost my family around £5000. My job is my love and privilege, but the mortgage repayments have at times made it very hard to justify. And that – perhaps more than anything – should be making this government think twice.
We are in the midst of an NHS crisis. There are not enough beds, nurses or doctors – and patients are being put at risk as a consequence. In that context, is it really prudent to discriminate against the 60% of doctors who are women? Even if Theresa May, like her predecessor, cares not a jot about gender equality, perhaps the imperative of actually staffing the NHS frontline might cause her to think twice about condoning terms and conditions of work that treat women as second class doctors – and are therefore set to force some of us out of the profession we love so dearly but cannot afford to sustain?