The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 6th, 2006

An unliberated bias in favour of women

What is a woman worth? That is the question that has to be faced by divorcing couples and by their lawyers. The answers seem to be getting curiouser and curiouser

Last week a judge ordered an insurance broker to give his former wife a settlement of £48m. She had earlier refused his offer of about £20m, which is why the matter went to court. No doubt Beverley Charman was an exemplary wife in every way, and it is of course written in the Book of Proverbs that the price of a virtuous woman is above rubies, but even so, £48m seems a little steep. It would buy a couple of continents’ worth of rubies.

The same nasty question was lurking behind the sum of £800,000 awarded last week in compensation to Helen Green who had been bullied at Deutsche Bank by several colleagues. Why £800,000? Why are this young woman’s hurt feelings worth nearly £1m? It is distinctly more than she would get in state criminal injuries compensation if she lost a lung (£3,500), the use of all her limbs (£250,000) or all her lifetime’s earnings (£500,000 maximum and rarely granted). Something has gone wrong with the national sense of priorities.

Bullying is as wrong as it is common, and it is right that her employers should be held to account for allowing it to continue. So, however, should she. Mature women (and men) are responsible for defending themselves. Most women, or at any rate most women over 40, have had to handle constant bullying or sexual harassment at work without expecting compensation or even sympathy, still less a small fortune.

I think with regret back to the days when I could have claimed at least one rather large fortune, if only I had gone to an industrial tribunal. “You’re finished. You’re pregnant,” my head of department told me in front of several witnesses. If only I had developed the ferocious sense of entitlement that many women seem to have today. If only I had seen those L’Oréal advertisements for expensive face cream, in which a smirking woman murmurs, “ Because I’m worth it.”

What women are really worth is beset with confusion and contradiction. I’m not talking about our existential value: I mean a woman’s worth when money and portable property change hands — on employment, on unfair treatment, on paying taxes, on receiving pensions, on getting cash from her husband or, above all, on divorce.

There was a time, until about 20 years ago, when what women wanted — what women felt they were worth — was equal pay for equal work in a climate of equal opportunity and genuine meritocracy. One of the logical consequences was that no woman was entitled to take out of a marriage any more than she brought into it.

That view was later softened by a recognition that childbearing and childcare present a serious opportunity cost to most women — value lost, so to speak, although it represents tremendous value added to her children and family. So now people tend to agree that at divorce a woman should be compensated both for the real value that she brought to the marriage and for the opportunity cost to herself — her long slide down the career ladder, her loss of a personal pension, her reduced chances of finding another spouse. That all comes expensive, especially to a rich husband.

Even so I do not see how it could come to £48m, unless the wife had been directly involved in creating that wealth. No matter how swollen my self-esteem, no matter how exquisite my catering or cosseted my children, no matter how alpha my embonpoint, I would find it embarrassing to turn down a £20m divorce settlement on the grounds that I was worth more. Even Princess Diana settled for £17m.

My husband and I once tried to work out, purely commercially, what a particular wife was worth — she and her highly paid husband were old friends and she was by agreement a stay-at-home mother. We tried to figure out what her various services — housekeeping, administrative, catering, childcare, sexual, social and other — were worth as tactfully as possible, but the depressing truth was that he could easily have replaced her with nannies and caterers and a part-time PA, not to mention high-class sex workers, for a great deal less than the cash it cost him to support her as things were. In a happy marriage, of course, all this is meaningless; the value of a wife is above rubies and so is her husband’s, for richer and for poorer. The trouble starts when people start having to make estimates.

There is a surprisingly unliberated tendency among women, and among men, to make estimates that are unfairly biased in favour of women. The judge in the Charmans’ hearing said, rightly, that although both of them, starting with nothing, had played their part in the marriage, this was one of the “very small category of cases where, wholly exceptionally, the wealth created is of extraordinary proportions from extraordinary talent and energy” — which I take to mean that the wife did not have a lot to do with the success — and therefore the husband could keep more than half the assets.

That still left the wife with £48m (37% of the assets). But then the judge made some odd remarks about old-fashioned attitudes. Discussing John Charman’s determination “to protect what he regards as wealth generated entirely by his efforts”, he said: “In the narrow, old-fashioned sense, that perspective is understandable, if somewhat anachronistic. Nowadays it must attract little sympathy.”

Wrong. It is the judge who sounds old-fashioned. This country is awash with clever and hardworking men who earn or make huge sums of money while their wives do little — rather less than the average wife on an average income — to contribute to domestic comfort and not much to advance their husband’s careers. Often they do not work themselves.

That does not mean they are not entitled to proper compensation on divorce, but I think the assumption that they are entitled to half the fruits of the marriage, unless there is good reason why not, is absurd. If feminism means anything worthwhile at all, it means that women should try to be fair to men, just as they demand men be fair to them. Women should not try to inflate their value merely because men have deflated it for generations.