Just joining the boys' club doesn't give all women success in the workplace

We need to rewrite the rulebook, not just obey the rules.

It was "not easy", said Bollywood starlet Sherlyn Chopra in a BBC interview about her latest career move last week, but "no one can take that achievement away from me. My sister is proud of my achievement," she continued, while her mother may have reservations but will just have to "accept me the way I am". From these fairly ambiguous words, Chopra’s "achievement" could have been any number of feats - but it just so happened to concern her recent nude appearance on the cover of Playboy, which officially made her the first Indian woman ever to do so. Naturally, some vocal members of the blogosphere were loath to agree that such a move could be seen as genuine attainment. Others, however, were supportive of Chopra’s actions, arguing that her choices were personal and could in many ways be seen as a natural progression from her most recent roles in Bollywood movies.

Coincidentally, reporting of Chopra’s appearance on the front of the world’s favourite soft porn magazine appeared on the same day that statistics were released suggesting that the number of female board directors has risen by a third over the past year. The Telegraph lauded this as proof of the success of voluntary targets in the workplace, and it’s a fair argument. Stringent recommendations from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) stated that FTSE 100 companies should aim for at least 25 per cent female representation by 2015, after it was found that at the previous rate of snail’s-pace uptake, it would take at least 70 years to significantly address the gender gap. Many companies voluntarily signed up to a code of equality which involved reporting back on their progress and presumably having to save a whole lot of (bearded) face. The percentage of women board members rose significantly; the percentage of female board directors less so. But because even the official report itself relied heavily on percentages rather than actual numbers, when we all know that the numbers of gals in expensive skirt suits were intimidatingly teensy to start with, it’s difficult to say how much real achievement in terms of "bums on seats" has been made.

What, then, is it that unites Chopra’s defiantly naked body and the Hobbs-clad ladies controlling the financial world? From our side, it is simply that we’ve suddenly been given two very different perspectives on what constitutes success in the workplace. Both of these announcements have focused heavily on very different definitions of achievement - and it has led us to question: what sort of work should women be proud of nowadays?

It might seem natural to proclaim some beef - and a big meaty slab of it, too - with Hugh Hefner and his puff-tailed Playmates at first. But in fact, the issue of board directors often kicks up just as much sand as that of Playboy modelling in the modern environment. As we’ve mentioned in the past, Germaine Greer was the one who wanted to liberate women from housework rather than "putting them on the board of Hoover" - and increasingly, certain sects of modern feminists have stated that we should turn our backs on the glass ceiling altogether, rather than attempt to break into a patriarchal structure of cut-throat capitalism that we never took part in building in the first place. While BIS's efforts should not be underplayed, it should also be considered that introducing female co-workers to the boys’ club of high-powered industrial decision-making may not go far enough in addressing a lot of social and cultural ills holding women back. Expensive company car or no, these women are still entering a game where men made all the rules. Basically, they’re still just becoming part of The Man, man.

Meanwhile, Sherlyn Chopra has done a Magic Mike and gone where the money is. Who are we to blame her? She’s grown up as a steaming hot babe in an industry that demands almost physical perfection from its female participants; she’s inevitably had to cultivate her looks as well as her talent; and a star appearance on Playboy’s front cover surely garners even harder currency than an uncomfortably long hug with Hugh. Self-posted naked pictures via Twitter earlier in the year suggest that she may well take pleasure in the exhibitionist side of things, and Bollywood payment is notoriously unpredictable. Besides, the well-worn pro-stripping argument can be applied quite nicely here: to take advantage of male slavishness to their sex drives for ridiculous amounts of money is actually giving women the financial upper hand. A pessimistic view on the entirety of humanity, perhaps, but hey! Everyone’s cashing in somehow, so what’s the problem?

What differentiates Chopra from her counterparts in the UK boardroom may ultimately be very little. All have achieved in their careers by reinterpreting (but not rewriting) the rules put down by male-dominated structures, where an action that guarantees economic status equals success. Serious financial clout plus family - the "have it all" culture - is so difficult to cultivate because it was only originally only ever envisioned for males, and the social roles they were expected to take. And while we hold on to the idea that success and achievement is defined by muscling onto the path where these men first trod, we can only get so far. Perhaps that’s why Chopra’s announcement, and the sister announcement that women are appearing more and more on boards across the country, leaves an unusual (if not entirely bitter) taste in our mouths.

"Have it all" is, of course, alive and well in its absolute embodiment: newly-appointed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who happens to also be six months pregnant. Social media went predictably mad for the baby-carrying exec, which is undoubtedly one of the most encouraging appointments made in the capitalist sphere this generation. Eventually, however, the hoo-hah was questioned by some: expectant fathers would never have been scrutinised, complained commentators; the uproar was teetering on the edge of depressing, said others; and Mayer herself somewhat let the side down by proclaiming that she planned to take minimal maternity leave, during which she would work throughout.

In comparison to the FTSE companies, many of which apparently soldier on toward 50 per cent female representation, the USA’s Fortune 500 lag uselessly behind at a chief count of four per cent. Marissa Mayer, in light of this knowledge, has certainly done an unusual thing. Can we be proud of her accomplishment? Insofar as we can understand Sherlyn Chopra’s motives, yes we can. But have they, in their magical, maternity leave-shunning, perfectly-proportioned and cellulite-free ways, done much for the feminist cause in Careerland? Perhaps not. For a real movement that we can take pride in, it may be necessary to rewrite the rule book entirely, so that women who aren’t superhumanly unaffected by childbirth or blessed with Venus-like bodies can also enjoy credible success in the workplace. A difficult undertaking indeed, but surely a valiant one. Any volunteers?


Sherlyn Chopra, the first Indian woman to pose nude on the cover of Playboy. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.