Many years ago I went to see my male boss to ask for a pay rise. I had discovered that a man doing the same job as me was paid over a third more. I thought I had a good case.
This was at the BBC in the 1990s. I was a UK-based correspondent reporting on education for radio. My male counterpart covered the same subject for TV. Our background experience was comparable and arguably radio demanded a more prolific and varied output. Moreover, a recent move to bi-medial coverage meant that we were doing regular swaps, with me reporting for TV news while he did the early morning punditry on the Today programme and other radio work.
Up to then, I had been quite happy with what I earned. I wasn’t complaining about my colleague. He was a terrific reporter and if he had persuaded them to pay him so much, good for him. But I reckoned I was terrific too and fair’s fair. Something wasn’t right.
It’s true to say my meeting with the then Head of Newsgathering was not an unqualified success. My complaint of unfairness was met with disdain. No proper explanation was offered and I was made to feel that this was not a suitable matter for discussion. My cautious suggestion that sex discrimination was at play was pooh-poohed (unsurprisingly – equal pay legislation had been around for a couple of decades). I was offered a derisory increase – so derisory as to make very little difference to the arithmetic of the pay differential.
All of this was well before the more recent, if enforced, moves to transparency at the BBC. Salaries were then generally secret above a certain level and disclosure among colleagues was not common. That my TV counterpart and I knew each other’s pay was unusual.
But Carrie Gracie’s bold resignation as the BBC’s China Editor in protest at unequal pay and her claim of unlawful discrimination by the BBC brought it back to me. Politicians have entered the fray, the Equality and Human Rights Commission is asking questions and once again the BBC seems on the back foot, despite its revealing a few months ago a gender pay gap smaller than the UK average. As it pointed out, the gender pay gap is not the same as equal pay and arises in large measure because there are more men in senior positions.
But what we are talking about here is equality – equal pay for work of equal value. Public interest is stirred because of the names involved and the size of their pay packets and because those pay packets come from public funds. But where the BBC goes, no doubt most others go too, and, for all we know, more extremely so. Other broadcasters? Industry? The city?
In a free market for talent, pay differences are always going to be difficult. But if there is any hint of a systemic gender bias, then there is a problem. It is probably not a conscious bias (‘oh, he’s a man, that’ll be 40% extra then’) and other factors must be at play. There may even be a subconscious throwback to the ancient notion that men work because they have to and women work for pin money. No employers are going to have pay more than they need to and men may simply negotiate harder and better. I hate to generalise but there may be a glimmer of truth here.
All those years ago, I certainly could have done with advice on negotiating pay. I should have done more research and presented my case more convincingly. I could have been smarter and blown my trumpet more loudly.
But of course it shouldn’t be left to the negotiating skills of individual women and women shouldn’t be left to fight a rearguard action on discovering they’re shafted. The BBC has already promised to be a beacon of fairness by 2020. It may now be under pressure to act more quickly.