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

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.