The Sky Sports sexism row is a watershed moment

The departure of Andy Gray and Richard Keys might mark the point where casual sexism became unaccept

It's surprising that a couple of football commentators saying something sexist should end up becoming such a big deal. But perhaps it marks something of a watershed – the day that casual sexism was revealed as being so socially unacceptable that even in a man's world, even on a sports TV station where "Soccerettes" parade in football strips for male admiration, the words of Andy Gray and Richard Keys were deemed to have gone too far.

Why did the row blow up now? It's tempting, perhaps, to think that there's some kind of conspiracy at play – the kind of "dark forces" alluded to by Keys in his interview with TalkSport radio yesterday. Tempting, too, to imagine that Gray's hauling over the coals might not be entirely unadjacent to his decision to pursue legal action against the News of the World over alleged phone-hacking.

But perhaps there is a more simple explanation than rather fanciful ideas about vengeful employers or dark forces – that Keys and Gray stood still while the world around them moved on, and ended up looking seriously out of date, trapped in a matey lads' mag world while their employers were trying to appeal to a wider demographic than geezers down the boozer braying into a beermat.

The pair might be surprised why the story has become as big as it has, particularly in newspapers that aren't generally regarded as being bastions of equality themselves. It's a little jarring to see newspapers that print photos of half-naked women wringing their hands over a sexism row.

But that's the delicious hypocrisy of the press – it's always fair game if it's happening to someone else. As the Sachsgate row and the fuss over Carol Thatcher's golliwog remark proved, there's never a shortage of criticism for broadcasters who are seen to have stepped over the line, even if the papers reporting it aren't exactly squeaky clean. And the leaked tape meant anyone could hear for themselves and be the judge.

It's worth remembering, too, that Gray and Keys wouldn't have been heading for an early bath if they hadn't said what they'd said about the assistant referee Sian Massey in the first place. No one forced them to be casually sexist while wearing microphones; they were ultimately responsible for their own demise. Keys attempted the "I was being ironic" and "taken out of context" defences in his TalkSport mea culpa, but something about it didn't really ring true – the "do me a favour, love" line aimed at Karren Brady can't be easily explained away.

What they said may have been acceptable a few years ago; but times change, and attitudes change, in football as elsewhere. Gray and Keys just hadn't moved on with modern football, where many more women visit the stadiums and play the game, and were left looking rather outdated. They were caught off-guard, acting in a way that they shouldn't have been as ambassadors for their brand and top-level employees. They got it wrong, and that was that.

Some are worried that this marks a new victory for the spectral PC Brigade and a clampdown on freedom of expression. It doesn't, and it's not evidence that men are the ones who are really the victims of sexism, either. It's just proof that if you say something stupid, you might not always get away with it, particularly if there's a microphone around.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.