E Jane Dickson: Boobs, bras and the real battle for women

The Battle of Jonsson’s Breasts may be a victory of sorts, but it’s not decisive

Share
Related Topics

It was, the tabloids chorused, "a massive boob". When Marks & Spencer announced its intention this week to charge a £2 premium on larger sized bras, all hell broke loose. A Valkyrie horde of the bigger-breasted, led by Ulrika Jonsson, descended, crying vengeance on the hapless marketing men and, not surprisingly, their campaign – not to mention their indignantly quivering embonpoint – received maximum exposure.

The justification that bigger bras require "greater engineering" (cue mental image of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and gang of sweating labourers – "On the count of three, boys, "Heeeave!") was rightly laughed to scorn and protesters spoke angrily of " a tax on femininity".

The subsequent announcement that M&S had shelved its proposals was hailed as an important feminist victory: "I just want to thank all the women who have stood up for what they believe in," said Beckie Williams of the pressure group Busts 4 Justice. "It just goes to show what you can achieve as a group of ordinary women who decided this cause was worth fighting for."

I hate to rain on a parade, but I wish we'd get this "bra tax" business into proportion. Thanks to Busts 4 Justice I stand to save maybe 20 quid a year. (On the other hand, I could just shop somewhere other than M&S.) Set against the information, also published this week, that 30 years on from the Equal Opportunities Act, women are still earning, on average, 20 per cent less than men for doing the same job (in the financial sector, it's a staggering 60 per cent), that doesn't seem like a whole lot to shout about.

And if we're talking about a "tax on femininity", let's just consider the VAT payable on feminine hygiene products. (OK, so the picture opportunities aren't great, but the principle's not dissimilar.) It seems to me that there are a heap of female causes "worth fighting for" which the media – and society in general – choose to ignore.

The scandalised response to Harriet Harman's recent suggestion that the Government might use equality legislation to promote more women managers in banking is a dispiriting case in point: "Doesn't she know there's a recession on?" "How can beleaguered Big Business cope with the extra strain of increased maternity payments?"

Clearly, the recession is bad news for women in the workplace. Already the Government's pledged flexi-time reforms, warmly approved by delegates at Labour's annual conference last October, have been put on hold "for the duration" by Secretary of State for Business, Peter Mandelson. The proposed extension of paid maternity leave from 39 to 52 weeks has similarly bitten the dust.

In the current sauve qui peut climate, where workers of either gender are in fear for their jobs, anecdotal evidence that women in high places are soft-pedalling on their statutory rights, let alone fighting for equal pay, is hardly surprising. It is, however, a drastically near-sighted approach, because there is simply no hope of closing the gender gap in earnings until the central issue of arrangements for working mothers is resolved.

The figures speak for themselves. Up to the age of 30, men and women earn roughly similar amounts. Between 30 and 50, ie, the child bearing/rearing age, the "earnings gap" becomes a chasm, leaving many women stranded for good. It seems fairly clear that if the species is to continue, women must bear children, yet this is routinely characterised by employers as a "choice", a hormonal caprice brought on by watching too many Nigella Lawson programmes.

The recession may be a handy short-term excuse for freezing more and more working mothers out of the workplace, but in the longer term, it's a spectacular own goal. Already women, fearful of prejudicing their position/earnings, are putting off childbirth to their late 30s; the costs of this, in NHS fertility treatments alone, is immense.

If the recession-fuelled backlash against equal employment opportunities continues to gather strength, it is possible women will choose not to have children or at least not to add to their families. In the Depression of the 1930s, the birthrate slumped by 10 per cent (and that was before effective contraception was freely available). With our state pension scheme already in tatters and care of the elderly a major social pressure, can we afford such a slump this time around?

Harman's proposals to bring more women into senior managerial positions should not, I think, be disregarded. We've lived long enough with the idea that women lose a chunk of their professional faculties with each child. Now neuroscience suggests that an older woman, freed from the biological onus of childbearing, enters a phase of intense mental clarity and vigour.

I'd never, of course, be sexist enough to claim that this is precisely the time when her fiftysomething male colleague is most likely to lose his head (and the firm's time/money) chasing after unsuitable young women and roaring round town on unsuitable motorcycles, but I leave it to employers to consider.

Joking aside, this is not a time for women to run scared on their rights. The Battle of Jonsson's Breasts may be a victory, of sorts, but it is not, I think, decisive. If the sisters will forgive me, I won't be jumping up and down in my minimal-bounce bra just yet.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Infrastructure / Development Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunity to join a...

Recruitment Genius: Partnership Relationship Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Partnership Relationship Mana...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Developer - Xamarin

£45000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software development compa...

Recruitment Genius: Student Support Assistants - Part Time & Full Time

£14600 - £17600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are passionate about sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister ...: No child would be caged in a failing prison

Frances Crook
 

Daily catch-up: 99 days until the election, which is also the average life of a web page

John Rentoul
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore