Air NZ pulls out of the EMA over Thompson remarks
While the NBR's Mediawatch has called Alasdair Thompson's remarks over menstruation "a bit of a kerfuffle" citing media trainer Brian Edward's comments that he is otherwise a nice and reasonable guy, the real story in New Zealand over the pay gender gap has to be one of the media's latent inability to throw serious light on this issue. Aside from the obvious queries one has to have when drawing from the gospel of Edwards (i.e. will Edwards confirm whether or not Thompson is his client?), Edwards' reposting of his bizarre 1986 column where he equates women's rights with a sense of unease at being a sex object and claims that Germaine Greer hit on him should be enough for anyone to question why on earth we are listening to another male columnist over issues of women's rights.
Perhaps even more bizarre is the citing of a 2008 study of an Italian bank by Andrea Ichino and Enrico Moretti as solid evidence that the 12% remaining in the pay equity gap can be explained by women's menstruation. Such a sharp turn towards biological determinism on the basis of one article is treated with suspicion by any academic worth their salt. While those writing in the Herald seem to have not read the article in question, they have also failed to look at the criticism of Ichino and Moretti's work which would be an obvious place to start. The major fallacy of the study has to be that they equate sick leave with productivity and then extrapolate outwards, disregarding the differences between Italian society and others. Sick leave obviously is not necessarily a measure of productivity, and flies in the face of other studies which suggest that women spend longer hours unpaid at work and those that suggest that centuries of sexism has led to an environment where women are less competent at negotiating pay rises than men. It also ignores the cultural background to the society, which they note in a footnote they disregard the data of 166 top managers, as only two of them are women (6).
As Jonah Ruckoff and Mariesa Herman (Columbia University) contested in their December 2009 response to Ichino and Moretti, there is little evidence to suggest that menstruation is the cause of higher absenteeism in New Zealand. They cited problems in Ichino and Moretti's work with correlating data, and correcting program errors. These included errors in the age of employees and the days that they were away. They also argued that the 28 day figure for menstruation was misleading as less than 16% of women's periods correlated to exactly 28 days (6). Studying a much larger data set of teachers at New York city schools they could find no evidence to support Ichino and Moretti's claims.
As Paula Bennett, Catherine Delahunty and Jenny Shipley have inferred, writing off the pay equity gap as menstruation is in the realm of dinosaurs. This is a commonly held view that has been around for decades, but does not go far to explaining the relative difference in glass ceilings when it comes to the discrimination women face in the workplace. While Edwards might go on about the tendency to attack public figures in New Zealand as being an excuse, Thompson is CEO of the EMA, not a commentator like Michael Laws beaming babble. Part of his job is to represent the brand of his company and the legal position of employers and manufacturers, not his own personal superiority complex or discussing the staff that are under him's personal battles with their periods as some kind of intuitive undocumented research according to "the office lady I trust" as evidence of his outdated opinions.
Air New Zealand have now cut ties with the EMA citing Thompson's opinions, which is probably not a bad move in showing their support for half the population in the land of milk, honey and dinosaurs. While those who are not women who have battled for equality in the workplace might find this all a bit of a storm in a teacup, those who are will be unlikely to forget Thompson's comments quickly. In business terms, Air New Zealand are responding to the market and recognizing the valuable contributions of women in the workplace and the damage Thompson has done to our retention of good businesswomen internationally. Let's hope the EMA also recognizes the role they have to play in sending out a similar message. Thompson's inability to get a grip of this following the comments he made before his interview with Forbes shows a serious error in judgment.