Wilkinson's money dispute highlights inconvenient truth

Lisa Wilkinson leaves her Neutral Bay house. She has just left Channel Nine (9) for Channel Ten (10). Pic by Nick Moir 17 oct 2017
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Lisa Wilkinson leaves her Neutral Bay house. She has just left Channel Nine (9) for Channel Ten (10). Pic by Nick Moir 17 oct 2017 .

"This Lisa Wilkinson thing has played out exactly as I thought," says a young woman, recently employed as a TV researcher, "and that's what pisses me off."

Earlier this week, Channel Nine let Wilkinson walk. A protracted salary dispute with its popular presenter had come to naught; what the network didn't know is that she was poised to sign with a rival.

At 7.56pm on Monday, Wilkinson made a bombshell announcement on Twitter: she was leaving Nine, effective immediately.

Exactly one hour later, she revealed her defection to Ten, where she will co-host The Project. Sources say the network has even bigger plans for its star recruit. "They see her as Australia's Diane Sawyer," says a Ten insider, referring to the high-profile American TV journalist. "They want Lisa to do the big political and celebrity interviews."

On social media, thousands congratulated Wilkinson. But their applause was tempered by anger. Many wanted to know: why did Nine offer her less than it paid Karl Stefanovic, her Today co-anchor?

"Their justifications were pretty flimsy," says the researcher, "and I'm glad Lisa stood up for herself. I just don't accept [commentators' claims] this is a win for all women."

A female radio producer agrees. "It's good to look at the gender pay gap," she says. "Quite rightly, everyone attacks the sexist dinosaurs who think men are worth more than women. But it's just one piece of the puzzle."

To be clear, Wilkinson has never portrayed her salary battle as an everywoman struggle. Nor does anyone begrudge her demands for pay equity. Those who spoke with Fairfax Media bristle at claims her desired package would have cost 10 producers their jobs.

"That went down like a lead balloon in here," says a Nine staffer. "Why would [producers' wages] come out of her earnings and not Karl's? Will our male executives give up their bonuses for the greater good?"

Instead, there is a quiet anguish. Many young women insist the pay gap experienced by major female stars - and attempts to correct it - has little bearing on their own economic woes. They point to Wilkinson's bargaining power, including her ability to walk away from a well-paid role. Above all, they're frustrated to see this saga rendered as a kind of Lean In parable.

"I'm pleased Lisa stood her ground and asked for what she's worth," says a former broadcast journalist. "But we need to stop telling other women that should be their solution. Equality does not 'trickle down'."

It's no surprise that young workers are increasingly employed as casuals or freelancers. Companies, of course, spruik the supposed "flexibility" and "freedom" of such arrangements. To the workers themselves, such terms have become a dark joke.

"I have all the freedom in the world to not take holidays and not get sick," says one journalist. "At the rate I'm paid, I can't afford to."

She lets out a bitter laugh. "I'm not stupid enough to ask for more money. They'd probably find someone who'd do my job for even less."

Her father, she says, went from high school to a full-time manufacturing job. It was boring and dirty. But it afforded him a modest home, regular hours and guaranteed leave.

"Dad worked in a factory in his 20s, I went to uni for six years," she says. "Tell me how it is that he bought a house [on a single income] while my boyfriend and I can't even afford a deposit. He had assets, I have none. He took holidays, I don't. And my job is a day-by-day proposition."

Earlier this year, a junior radio producer prepared a news report about Melbourne's Cabrini Hospital laying off 127 linen cleaners. It was the latest in a long line of stories about companies slashing their female-heavy workforces. "I interviewed some of [these retrenched workers] and they're all driving Ubers or waitressing," she says.

What really stood out was the tenuous nature of their employment. There are few actual sackings; if their bosses want to get rid of them, they just stop allocating shifts.

Two months later, this producer noticed her name missing from the newsroom roster. She found another media job, although it's casual. Many of her friends are in the same position - even in ostensibly prestigious white-collar professions.

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"It'd be offensive to compare ourselves to the linen workers," she says. "But I will say this: no one's asking for a raise. No one will rock the boat. We're just trying to keep our jobs."

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For this reason, women insist upon their identities being concealed. "Look at who is speaking out on Twitter," says one. "They're the heavy hitters and they're in demand. If you're a low-paid casual, you keep your mouth shut."

Since Wilkinson's explosive departure from Nine, there has been much talk of the nebulous "power" wielded by male executives. While no one challenges its existence, they do question what to do about it.

Strong workplace protections. Stable employment. Affordable housing. Not one person interviewed for this story claims to enjoy all three. "God, if had those things," the TV researcher says, "I'd be much 'braver' at work."

She interrupts herself to reel off a list of disclaimers. Please don't get me wrong, she says. Of course I want more women on TV, gender quotas in boardrooms and strong female role models.

"Except I want the other issues to get a proper airing too," she says. "It's not enough to go around shaming individual companies.

"As long as women are economically insecure, nothing will change."

Twitter: @Michael_Lallo

???Email: ???mlallo@fairfaxmedia.com.au

This story Wilkinson's money dispute highlights inconvenient truth first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.