BBC gen­der pay gap should spur all women

The skew­ing of re­wards goes well be­yond the Bri­tish broad­caster. Its rich list is a mo­ment to de­mand changes in work­places ev­ery­where

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Anne McElvoy

The BBC’s gen­der pay gap – re­vealed in an un­prece­dented list of top earn­ers pub­lished by the Bri­tish pub­lic ser­vice broad­caster last Wed­nes­day – is not so much a sin­gle chasm as a se­ries of ge­o­log­i­cal fault­lines. The most egre­gious dis­crep­ancy is that top rates of pay are skewed to­wards men by two-thirds, and that on-air ta­lent is do­ing re­mark­ably sim­i­lar jobs for very dif­fer­ent re­wards.

The broader dif­fi­culty it raises is the gap around who gets to do what in the first place. All me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions have pay dif­fer­en­tials and most need to look at them more rig­or­ously; they all should feel the heat over the way they re­mu­ner­ate and pro­mote women.

The BBC is in a par­tic­u­lar cat­e­gory, how­ever. As it has come un­der in­creased pres­sure to jus­tify its fund­ing, its de­fence has been that it is the pur­veyor of jour­nal­is­tic val­ues at a time when they are threat­ened by dis­rup­tion to the eco­nomic model of qual­ity jour­nal­ism and a more di­vided pub­lic mood. As a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the BBC, I would ar­gue that these are vi­tal char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Some of the more jaw-drop­ping amounts in the BBC’s rich list do, though, open up glar­ing ques­tions about the bal­ance be­tween the broad­caster’s de­sire to be a pur­veyor of pub­lic ser­vice val­ues and the amount of ef­fort (and dosh) that goes into pre­serv­ing and re­ward­ing its mar­ketable as­sets. Yes, that is the re­sult of a de­sire to pre­serve its reach, along­side a pub­lic ser­vice re­mit. But the con­se­quence of a ne­go­ti­at­ing cul­ture seem­ingly un­will­ing to say no to big-money de­mands, or to watch stars walk away, is a weight­ing of re­wards that look like the pri­vate sec­tor splash­ing share­hold­ers’ cash.

The broader point, which the BBC has been rep­re­hen­si­bly slow to act upon, is that the skew­ing of re­wards is sym­bolic of broader chal­lenges of who gets to do what, and how easy or not it is for them to progress. The ma­jor pre­sen­ters, from Chris Evans to Gra­ham Nor­ton, are pre­dom­i­nantly male. Even Bri­tish na­tional trea­sures such as Clare Bald­ing re­ceive far less re­mu­ner­a­tion than the golden boots of Gary Lineker.

Let’s not look only at the top ranks. Fur­ther down the scale, chaps on ra­dio and TV still get the lion’s share of ex­plain­ing how the world works. A fel­low fe­male broad­caster tells me that fe­male man­agers are as prone to li­on­is­ing men in these roles as any male suit, and I think she has a point.

The BBC’s in­tel­lec­tual spade­work is still done mainly by men of a sim­i­lar out­look and type. Di­rec­tor gen­eral Tony Hall should get on with chang­ing that, but dis­tor­tions will per­sist un­til broad­cast­ers think more ad­ven­tur­ously about what women are ca­pa­ble of.

If Hall, di­rec­tor of news James Hard­ing and the al­pha males at the top want to do some­thing about this, now is the time. Too many re­doubts in TV and ra­dio re­flect an un­am­bi­tious view of what women are suited to. Broad­cast­ers tend to veer from one di­ver­sity chal­lenge to the next. Rightly, there is an over­due fo­cus on eth­nic rep­re­sen­ta­tion – no pre­sen­ter from a mi­nor­ity back­ground fig­ures in the top end of the pay scale. But these con­cerns must not be ex­cuses, in which the un­spo­ken mes­sage is: “Done the women thing, got to do the mi­nori­ties one now.”

What holds women back most in broad­cast­ing is, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, a lack of re­li­able sup­port for them to do more. Find­ing the doors into many roles is still as mys­te­ri­ous as lo­cat­ing plat­form 9¾ at King’s Cross sta­tion.

Wher­ever in the work­place, this is not the time for women to shut up about un­equal chances. I sus­pect many will feel gal­vanised by the lift­ing of the BBC pay veil. And if their bosses start with the ex­cuses, they can now come armed with the rich list – and a pair of el­bows.

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