When I was in my early 20s, a naive junior writer, I remember having the pay gap debate in a magazine editorial meeting with Lisa Wilkinson. “But surely the main cause of the gap is the fact that we go off and have babies and stuff, so we come back to work part time and things like that,” I said with the airy stupidity of youth.
Someone with less class than Lisa may well have cut me down with a withering retort – there are few things more annoying than a young know-it-all spouting certainties informed by the life experience of a newborn puppy. But instead the eternally gracious Lisa patiently explained the reality. Women, on average, earn 18 per cent less than men. Across all industries. At all levels. And long before any babies or “things like that” are on the table.
The reasons aren’t always concrete or easy to define. Partly we undervalue ourselves – we’re less likely to negotiate for higher salaries than men. But we’re also damned if we do, damned if we don’t – if we ‘get tough’ we’re then seen as pushy and difficult, limiting our chance of advancement. It’s simply an insidious belief that permeates every part of our society: that women can be part of things, sure. We can contribute. But we’re probably not really as good as the guys and should be grateful for whatever scraps are thrown from the table. The people paying our salaries think it, and we’ve been trained to think it about ourselves.
Unless you’re Lisa Wilkinson. Today, she put her money where her mouth is, reportedly quitting her role as TODAY Show host after refusing to accept a smaller salary than her co-host, Karl Stefanovic. Channel Nine confirmed that the network was “unable to meet the expectations of Lisa Wilkinson and her manager on a contract renewal for a further period.”
What Nine execs possibly didn’t realise is that their decision would also fail to “meet the expectations” of Australian women everywhere – and frankly we’ve had enough. They’ve lost far more than the best presenter on the show – market research reportedly shows that Lisa was far and away the most popular host with the valuable female viewers who drive advertisers to open their pockets (think about the irony of that fact too long and you’ll weep).
They’ve also lost a hell of a lot of respect – releasing a roar of indignation from women everywhere, on Twitter and Facebook, around watercoolers, in flurries of text messages between friends. This is what we deal with every day. This is our reality. This is what we will remember when Channel Nine expects us to tune back into the Today show when Lisa is gone, scrutinising whoever they rope in as her replacement, and wondering if that woman’s being ripped off on her salary too.
Finally someone has done what we all wish we could –with dignity and integrity and with high visibility. Things won’t change tomorrow. But they will change. The floodgates haven’t opened but a tap has been turned on. We won’t forget this.
It’s frustrating that the lesson Lisa taught me 15 years ago is still something she needed to teach me and women like me in 2017. Here’s hoping she has no reason to repeat it 15 years from now.