Back in the 80s, I was a young accountant working in the City, for what was then one of the very biggest firms of accountants in the UK. This was the height of Thatcherism, where greed and selfishness were pretty much de rigueur – when an incident happened to me that has had a permanent effect on me. I was an auditor, working in the financial sector – so yes, the heart of that selfishness and greed – and was told, along with all my cohorts, that if I had a good ‘busy season’, I’d be promoted. Well, I had a good busy season – indeed, a great busy season – which was fully acknowledged by the firm, but I still didn’t get promotion. They told me that no-one had got promotion – we were going through a merger at the time, so we all pretty much accepted it… at least until we discovered that it wasn’t true, and that one person had got that promotion. As might be imagined, I was pretty annoyed – and being the kind of person I was, I started digging a bit deeper.
This was a big firm of accountants, and the people in my cohort all knew each other pretty well. We’d joined together, been on endless training courses, suffered through exams and through being used for the most basic and menial of work – this was the 80s, and ‘driving people hard’ was the way things worked. Anyway, we knew each other pretty well, and were willing to share a good deal. So I asked everyone I knew – from what I remember, about 40 people were willing to talk about it – how much they were earning, and how highly they were rated. We were all officially at the same ‘grade’, but I was astonished by the results I found. Every single woman earned less than every single man. Every single one. The highest paid woman was earning less than the lowest paid man.
Of course my evidence wasn’t scientific, my sample was far from random, but still to me that was pretty shocking. I knew about sexism, of course, but the firm I worked for liked to portray itself as modern and very equal. This was about as far from the image that was portrayed as it could be.
As I said, I was already annoyed by the firm – this turned the annoyance into anger, so I arranged a meeting with one of the partners. Not one of the older partners, who I might expect to be ‘old-fashioned’, but one of the younger, ‘nicer’ partners, one that I had worked for quite a lot over the previous couple of years. He already knew that I wasn’t happy – and he was trying to reassure me that everything was OK, offering me an overseas secondment of my choice and so on – but this was before I confronted him with the information I had discovered. When I told him, the reaction was not what I expected. He just smiled. Why are you bothered, he asked me. You’re a man.
I was taken aback. Hugely. He was entirely serious. He thought I wouldn’t care, because I wasn’t the one suffering. Indeed, he almost seemed to be suggesting that I should be happy about it – I was benefiting from the inequality.
Frankly, it made me sick – and I told him so. I started looking for other jobs immediately – and found an excellent job very soon after, in a very different place – and with a female boss. I even told her this story in my interview when she asked me why I was leaving. She was somewhat shocked, I could tell, but had obviously experienced a fair amount of this kind of thing herself.
As a white, rich, straight, privileged man I rarely suffer from anything like this directly – but the idea that I shouldn’t care when others suffer is deeply sad. What’s more, the idea that an unequal society is better even for those at the top is something that I find very difficult to accept. As a straight white man, I still benefit in human terms if everyone is happier, if everyone has an opportunity to flourish, if everyone is treated well. Society itself is better, stronger, more positive in those terms. I don’t need to ‘crush the opposition’ in order to thrive myself – the opposite! I’m not competing with or fighting against women, against gay people, against immigrants etc – I’m part of a society with them.
Why am I writing this now? Well, the subject of marriage equality is before parliament again – and I keep hearing tired old arguments against letting gay people marry. I’m a straight married man – and I can’t see for the life of me how allowing gay people to marry would do anything to damage my marriage. I’m not threatened by gay marriage – and it takes a pretty strange and depressing attitude to think so. Does it have any impact on me? Well, insofar as a more equal society, one where more people have more chance to be happy, is a happier society, yes it does have an impact on me. A positive impact.
So, though I’m not gay, I thoroughly support the idea of gay marriage. I thoroughly support any moves to equality. I want everyone to have every opportunity to be happy. I’m not threatened by other people’s happiness. The opposite. It helps me. It helps all of us.