It has been a difficult week for women who would like, in the face of all the odds, to remain optimistic about modern life in Britain. Our national treasures are becoming more lumpen – witness John Sergeant galumphing around a ballroom as Strictly Come Dancing sheds yet more of its talented women contestants, while images of David Beckham with nothing on are quietly withdrawn from circulation owing to some unforeseen consequence of the credit crunch. Meanwhile, the financial crisis is making gin and tonics more expensive. And it's November. So we really needed a report from the World Economic Forum to let us know that living as a woman in Britain at the moment is hardly a barrel of laughs.
For better or for worse, though, the WEF has stepped forward to put figures to our shame, and they make for bizarre reading. In its Global Gender Gap Index, it said, the UK has sunk in the league tables, until it sits just under Sri Lanka in the list of countries in which it is fun to be female. Having been the ninth most equal and fair place in the world in 2006, we fell to 10th last year; now we are the 11th best place for women and falling.
The reason for this is largely that the gender pay gap has widened: men are paid 17 per cent more than women for full-time work – a slight increase on last year – while part-time women workers are paid 37 per cent less than their brothers – down from 36 per cent less in 2007.
Among the liberal classes, all men know where they stand on date rape, wife beating and female genital mutilation: those are the easy ones. The other boys did them and ran away. They are Bad Things. But mention the pay gap and the same men will stare moodily into their energy-saving lentil bake.
This is 2008, for heaven's sake. The markets are crashing and nobody knows where their next copy of The Female Eunuch is going to come from.
In his recent book Affluenza, the psychologist Oliver James seemed to imply that all women should move to Denmark. Childcare is undertaken equally there. Women's jobs are well paid. Men are tall, handsome, talented and sensitive and always return your calls when they say they will. Denmark is only the seventh best place in the world to be a woman, however. Norway, Finland and Sweden come first. (One thing the WEF does not seem to have considered, in its ignorance, is that Finnish women are an awful lot better looking than Finnish men.)
Since women are used to putting an optimistic spin on disappointing situations, is there any upside to the news that we will be paid on average £369,000 less in our lifetimes than the person who sits next to us in the office, cracking his knuckles and scratching his balls?
Well, presumably we can look forward to women landing a lot more high-powered jobs as unemployment increases and we head into recession, can't we? Not because the bosses have suddenly seen the light; because women are cheaper than men.
The Fawcett Society's Women's No Pay Day, which draws attention to the 17 per cent pay gap between men's and women's earnings, happened on 30 October this year, meaning that women have effectively been working for free for the past 17 days and will continue to do so until New Year's Eve.
If women had a union we would down tools, work to rule, man, or indeed woman, the barricades – even if it is November. And even if it means stopping work right in the middle of a ...