Yeah, he's a dinosaur and all that. Yes, it's given good fodder for comics, talkback and office wags. But Alasdair Thompson has a few points in his favour. And I've got a few questions about the media coverage

You know what? Alasdair Thompson needs to figure out when to stop talking, because his array of apologies and explanations over the past 24 hours has only offended more and more people. But the man has a point. Or two.

No, not about the periods. If menstruation is making any sort of substantial difference to productivity in this country, then I'll be a monkey's uncle. And I hate monkeys. (Long story).

And having watched the excruciating raw footage Campbell Live has posted on its website -- the full 27 minutes and 57 seconds -- the man only made things worse. Let me get this out of my system first. It was a dumb comment to start with. And what he chose to say in interviews with the likes of Campbell Live's Mihingarangi Forbes only made things worse.

For a start, he had no evidence to substantiate his claim that women take more leave. What subsequent interviews have made clear is that he was extrapolating from personal experience -- something commonly done in this country and which always leads down a blind alley. It seems that at the Employers' Chamber of Commerce in Auckland, women take more leave than men. We know this because the woman who handles the leave forms has told Thompson as much.

Sadly, Thompson has taken that as evidence that all women take more leave than men. Which ain't smart. What's more, this woman at Thompson's office has said some it's down to other women having their periods. So Thompson has assumed that all women... You get the picture.

Not satisfied with pissing off women all over the country, he went on to insult men by saying that most women, from his experience, are more productive than most men. Yep, that's what he told TV3. Over the whole of life, women are more productive.

Which is as ridiculous a generalisation as the first, and I'm a little disappointed men haven't risen up with the same ferocity as women did yesterday to express their pique at such a lazy, unsubstantiated slur on our characters and work ethic.

Yeah, the gender generalisations shout "dinosaur", including the assumption that only women take time off to look after their kids. And so does the way that he tries to control the media. His patrician manner has come across as, well, exactly what you'd expect from the sort of person who makes such statements.

But watching that raw footage, a few other things came clear to me. First, Forbes could hardly get a question in. Thompson was determined to talk his way through the pickle he'd got himself in, as if by talking about it to reporters, he could find a consistent line of thought that held true to his initial point and didn't make him look like a dick.

He failed.

But where he's right, is that part of the reason for women earning less than men over their careers is the time many take to have and care for children. Step out of the workforce for a few years and you'll take a hit to your pocket as you miss a few potential opportunities to climb that old ladder.

The men who make the same choice experience the same thing. And it's not sexist or oppressive. Anyone of either gender who opts out of their career for a year or five will suffer the same. Even if they only step out, as I have a couple of times, to travel and work overseas. And yes, that does affect productivity.

As Sarah Trotman said today: “Mr Thompson did not say taking time off makes women unproductive. He said this is why women tend to get stalled in their careers. Very unsubtle difference!"

But that "stalling" can also a good thing. A parent choosing to take time out of the rat race to care for their child should be a person we esteem. I'm not saying it's a sin for a mother or father to go back to work after three weeks if that's their choice or economic necessity. But unpaid parents are not given the praise they deserve.

Thompson's also right that his critics are going after him for political reasons. He's been a champion of the bosses for a generation. Of course they're gleefully sticking the knife in. He'd be doing the same to them. That's class warfare for you.

His fault, while revealing an outdated world view and giving everyone a laugh for a few days, was really little more than a slip of the tongue. And as intimate as he is with this government (Social Credit, Simon Power? Really? You abandon your friends that quickly?), he's not a public representative. He only has to answer to employers in Auckland, not to the rest of us.

That was a point Forbes didn't seem to comprehend as she criticised him for not representing her as a woman. I somewhat shocked she'd have let that piece of stupidity be revealed to the country. The man is paid by companies to represent employers; he owes Forbes nothing.

The footage doesn't show either journalist or source in a great light, but does show some of the horse-trading that goes on behind the scenes, the fragile negotiations as to what's on and off record, and the lame jokes used to try to put interviewer and guest at ease.

I have a little sympathy for Thompson that all this footage would be put on the website. It's an interesting choice by the Campbell team; I hope they gave it serious thought.

First, it makes one of their reporters look dumb. She didn't understand who she was interviewing and her answers were waffly to say the least. The second point implies that the interview was intended to be clipped up and used in segments. Hence, Thompson was trying to find the write soundbite, rather than put together a coherent argument. It seems a little unfair to conduct one type of interview and then present it to the public as another type.

Second, it shows Thompson (the first time) say 'I'm going off the record", discuss his reasoning, then declare 'I'm back on now'. Now it was a patronising assumption by Thompson that he can turn a reporter on and off like that. Forbes never agreed that he was off the record, but neither did she tell him otherwise, which would have been the decent thing. That bit could have been edited out.

Third, Forbes personalises the issue, making it about her as a woman. She even prompts Thomson to apologise to her personally. I see no reason why she needed to put herself in the story like that. It's not about what she thinks.

I guess the TV3 folk would argue it shows the cut of the man's jib, and that justifies the other sins. Perhaps. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

So lordy, lordy, I almost have some sympathy for Thompson. Is he out of touch? Yes. Should he resign? No. If you get nothing else from the Forbes interview, it's that he isn't a provocateur or a bully, he just doesn't get it. Isn't it time to move on?

Comments (27)

by Chris Webster on June 24, 2011
Chris Webster

Tim

 

He needs to take a anti-PMS pill and lie down for a long time - he's obviously suffering male menopause  - too many male hormones and too little common sense.

by on June 24, 2011
Anonymous

Thompsons crime isn't holding the belief (hey people believe all sorts of ridiculous crap) it was expressing it in the public manner which he did. He then compounded things by defending the indefensible, he's dumb and if the employers want to have any credibility as a lobbying group, they need to push him out of the Waka.

As for Forbes, I agree, but her journalism has never impressed me with its depth or quality.

Unfortunately when you look at the figures you see that the attitudes on display are common at the top, from memory (can't be bothered googling) the US and Australia have higher levels of women on boards and in senior management.

"But that "stalling" can also a good thing. A parent choosing to take time out of the rat race to care for their child should be a person we esteem. I'm not saying it's a sin for a mother or father to go back to work after three weeks if that's their choice or economic necessity. But unpaid parents are not given the praise they deserve." But certain types of stalling are ok, see what being an allblack or spending some years swimming at the olympics will do for your career (or having been to school with/being related to those on the board)

by MikeM on June 24, 2011
MikeM

Anyone of either gender who opts out of their career for a year or five will suffer the same. Even if they only step out, as I have a couple of times, to travel and work overseas. And yes, that does affect productivity.

Ignoring Thompson and Forbes for a moment, it seems as if it'd be useful research (if it doesn't exist already) to develop reasonable models around what sorts of penalties should be expected when people take time out of their careers. It might help to understand more objectively what's actually happening and to what extent there's real discrimination.

by The Falcon on June 25, 2011
The Falcon

Good points Tim. I agree that the gender pay gap is (primarily) due to women taking more leave to raise families etc. It's not some evil capitalist plot to rip off women.

Businesspeople are pretty rational on the whole, and attempt to pay people a fair amount for the value they bring to the company.

by on June 25, 2011
Anonymous

"part of the reason for women earning less than men over their careers is the time many take to have and care for children"

This is a truism, and not a very useful one until we know how big a part, a question which the Delahunty amendment would help us answer.

The latest figures from Women's Affairs show that one year after entering employment, women with a degree earn, on average, 6% less than men with a degree. It's very hard to explain this through child-rearing leave. That doesn't mean it's discrimination, but as long as discrimination is a very plausible explanation, gender reporting is a good idea.

by Andin on June 25, 2011
Andin

"Step out of the workforce for a few years and you'll take a hit to your pocket as you miss a few potential opportunities to climb that old ladder."

Tell me about it. Sounds like Mr Thompson needs to step off the ladder, and do a spot of "personal development".

 

by Matthew Percival on June 25, 2011
Matthew Percival

The latest figures from Women's Affairs show that one year after entering employment, women with a degree earn, on average, 6% less than men with a degree. It's very hard to explain this through child-rearing leave.

All that shows is that employers know when they employ a female there is a possibility that in the future that employee will take a career break. This negatively impacts the employer in terms of having to recruit a new staff member and lost productivity whilst training up a new staff member.

Hence the employer employs the female at a slightly lower rate.

by Andrew Geddis on June 25, 2011
Andrew Geddis

There are some thoughts from someone who actually has studied this phenomenon here.

by tussock on June 25, 2011
tussock

See, women get paid less, and get promoted less, because the might take leave, for the kids.

Women take leave for the kids because, well, they get paid less than hubby, and probably wont get that promotion anyway. Less cost to the family if it's them.

So women get paid less because ... because women get paid less. Hmm.

by william blake on June 25, 2011
william blake

aaah haaaa, Thompson qualifies himself at the start of the interview by saying it has been having an especially heavy time this month....

OWAC.

by Tim Watkin on June 25, 2011
Tim Watkin

bradluen, I've seen similar research and it's a good point. Andrew's link suggests – once you take out the variables such as women working in lower paid jobs, education, ethnicity, age etc – women don't negotiate as hard for starting salaries. That may be true, but the assumption that it's because 'women don't like confrontation' seems as old-fashioned and generalised as Thompson's views.

Mothering does make a significant difference, but doesn't explain the whole difference, as everyone here (even Falcon!) seems to agree. So Delahunty's bill at first glance has some value, because if the debate of the past few days tells us anything it's that we don't have good data on this issue.

One thing there is research for – both in NZ and overseas – is that women in positions of leadership, especially in governance, tend to make for a more profitable company. The theory being that a more diverse board gives a better understanding of a diverse market.

tussock... yes, but. The money isn't the only reason women take the leave. Breast feeding's a significant factor, as is the physical toll of pregnancy and birth.

by Bruce Thorpe on June 25, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

Research on the data could be completed in a short time, it is really a matter of accessing historic data on the question.

I suspect a significant part the answer will still be "the clubbable " aspect of reward and promotion. Those making decisions are utterly caught up in the social rules of their "club" still featuring a bias against "serious" women.

I expect in the next decade or so, the situation will be less clearly about gender but as always about being in or out of the club.

by The Falcon on June 26, 2011
The Falcon

Andrew:

Women, here and elsewhere, are not asking for a hand-out. They are asking to be paid the same wage as men for the same work, which is fundamental to democratic ideals of equity and justice. Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty's bill, which proposes to amend the Equal Pay Act by allowing for gender pay comparisons, will help reduce the disparity. It is an important step forward for achieving the goal of gender pay equity

Doesn't sound like a dispassionate economic analysis to me.

by Ben Curran on June 27, 2011
Ben Curran

I don't think they're going for the dispassionate economic analysis angle here:

which is fundamental to democratic ideals of equity and justice

 

by Paul Williams on June 27, 2011
Paul Williams

Tim, you commented that "Thompson's also right that his critics are going after him for political reasons", I think that's too narrow.

His critics almost certainly feel Thompson's comments reflect what's not said but genuinely believed by employers (which is why EMA have to move him along). All of Thompson's media since, I think, has confirmed this; his performances have been entirely devoid of authenticity. Thompson's critics are focused on changing the law, in part, by making plain how weak the arguments against the change are.

I also think you're being overly harsh on Forbes. I agree Thompson's not her advocate, but I still think she was right to point out that the fault in his position; the absence of data, means that he is just peddling prejudice and that she wears the consequences.

by donna on June 27, 2011
donna

Forbes/TV3 could have done better but in the end Thompson comes across as a bully. Sorry, but he does.

But the matter does raise some more general questions about the relationship between business lobbyists such as the EMA and media coverage of they get. It's not surprising Alasdair Thompson thought he could bluff his way out of getting it wrong in the radio interview, for the simple reason that in the more than 10 years I've been listening to him spout on no one has ever seriously challenged him. And it is evident from the TV3 clip that he thought the most pressing issue for him was whether his hair looked good. It apparently never occurred to him that he might be asked the same sort of awkward questions as others in the political arena.

This should be a lesson to our media that business people get it wrong sometimes, too, and when the likes of Alasdair Thompson come out with assertions clothed in the rhetoric of, for example, efficiency and productivity they should be challenged. The media shouldn't have to wait for some lobby group CEO to have a Larry Summers moment to be reminded.

by Tim Watkin on June 27, 2011
Tim Watkin

Paul, the board has some questions to answer as to whether those views represent them and their clients. If his critics do think he reflects employers, I think they're being too simplistic; you can't tar all employers with the same brush.

As for Forbes, it's her role as a journalist to challenge him, put competing views to him, ask him to justify his claims and drill down into what he really thinks about these issues... but not witter on about her family and how he doesn't represent her.

Donna, I can't accept that Thompson's never been challenged. No, I can't produce a specific example, but as you say he's represented bosses for many years. He's been in debates with unionists and others and I'm certain he's been poked and proded in interviews, as has any representative of his kind. Yeah, he was obviously so used to doing media that he thought he could bluff through an interview on a topic he wasn't entirely au fait with. That's not abnormal – I've bluffed the odd bit of media myself – and the media need people like him who are willing to go on and put a (usually/mostly) informed point of view.

The hair thing? People say some soft things when they're nervous, trying to strike up a rapport with an interviewer or guest, or trying to defuse a tense situation. I wouldn't read anything into that other than a lame attempt at humour when he knew he was at odds with the person sitting across from him.

 

by william blake on June 27, 2011
william blake

Michael Laws goes into bat for Thompson in his Sunday Star Times column, positioning Thompson as a right wing, orthodoxy smashing, unpc hero.

How much more condemnation do you need?

by Paul Williams on June 27, 2011
Paul Williams

I've not said here, but have elsewhere, in my dealings with BusinessNZ (some years back), they are a sensible, reasonable and professional body - I mightn't agree with their every position, but it was never so poorly argued as Thompson's performance. He's done significant damage to his organisation and I'm amazed he's not resigned, his future is talkback radio.

I understand your point about Forbes question, I just thought it reasonable that she make the point that Thompson's use of anecdata has real consequences in the workplace.

by Tim Watkin on June 28, 2011
Tim Watkin

Paul, thought I'd note for people that the EMA, which Thompson runs, is a part of BusinessNZ. Nice flower, BTW.

William, that was probably the nail in his coffin!

I'm amazed this business is dragging on. So much for ruthless or even efficient business! The media management has been awful, from Thompson's inability to stay schtum to the board's dithering. Make a decision already!

by Tim Watkin on June 28, 2011
Tim Watkin

Wow, three exclamation marks. That's a record. Sorry. I'm really not that vexed about it.

by Claire Browning on June 28, 2011
Claire Browning

At least you didn't put 'em all in a row!!!

by Tim Watkin on June 28, 2011
Tim Watkin

You know what? I'm going to retract a little of what I said about Forbes. Just a little.

The thing about not warning him he was still on the record, even though he'd said he was off, then on again... that was a little puritanical. A colleague pointed out to me that Thompson isn't fresh off the boat when it comes to media. He doesn't need hand-holding and should know that if you don't get agreement that the status of the interview has changed, it hasn't. You can't just declare "I'm on" and "I'm off" and expect to be obeyed. Perhaps if you were a victim of violence or someone who had never spoken to the media before... but Thompson should know better. Invite a journalist into your office, and you're on from the moment you open the door until the moment you close it. (Or even after, if you're still shouting!)

by Paul Williams on June 29, 2011
Paul Williams

Tim, I agree with your comments about Thompson's conduct during the interview which is why I'm a lot less sympathetic to the calls for the BSA to review. Trying to control how you are represented is entirely reasonable, but he seemed to want to only broadcast his rehersed line and avoid Forbes questioning; she was right to persist with asking her questions.

Thanks too, for clarifying EMA's links to BusinessNZ. I don't mean to drag them into this, rather to suggest EMA and Thompson aren't doing employers any favours.

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