Samira Ahmed’s victory has taught us a lesson: it’s still gender that fixes our pay
‘Troublemakers’ across all sectors, not just at the BBC, should be encouraged to do what it takes to achieve justice at work
In 1971, I was working on a regional evening paper. The Equal Pay Act (superseded by the 2010 Equality Act) had been passed the year before but was not due to come into force until 1975, along with the Sex Discrimination Act. So, every Saturday afternoon, “girl reporters” were required to sit in a cubicle the size of an upright coffin and type whatever incomprehensible guff a half-cut (male) sports reporter bellowed down the phone as he filed his report on a local football match. We girls didn’t utter a peep of protest. Clearly we must have done something to deserve our fate.
The internalising of blame – it’s me, not systemic unfairness – has long made it easy to pay women less. It has also kept the focus on women’s behaviour, not on the conduct of employers who persistently break the law. Women tell each other they lack confidence, they avoid talking about money, they do not believe they are worth it, all true of many of my generation. We entered the workplace when we were often the only outsider ie female, in the office, allegedly earning “pin money”. But now?
On Friday, Samira Ahmed won an emphatic victory in her claim for equal pay against the BBC. The tribunal judgment was damning of the BBC’s arguments for paying Jeremy Vine an extraordinary £3,000 per episode on BBC 1’s Points of View, a 15-minute programme.
It was a sum agreed in 2008 when he was “up and coming” but had not yet arrived at Destination Fame.
Ahmed hosted Newswatch, which followed a similar 15-minute format on the BBC News channel. In 2012, she was paid a fee of £440 per programme. Ahmed described the discovery that Vine, a fellow journalist, had been paid six times more than her as “shocking”.
In muddled evidence to the employment tribunal, like scenes from the spoof BBC series W1A, (including a “document” lifted from Wikipedia), the BBC’s HR bureaucrats tried to explain the mystical process that sets a different tariff for a man and a woman with identical skills. Vine allegedly had “market value as a major star” (otherwise known as a gobby male agent claiming rival ITV offers). The BBC claimed celebrity, not gender, had dictated Vine’s price. The tribunal was unimpressed. It all borders on farce except that injustice, discrimination, taxpayers’ money, public trust in the BBC and Ahmed’s £693,000 pay differential over several years are at issue; another 20 cases are potentially in the pipeline.
So yes, this is a landmark case, but not just because of the courage of Ahmed and of those who stood with her, among them her fellow broadcaster Jane Garvey and Carrie Gracie, the BBC’s former China editor. Gracie resigned her post in 2018 because of “the secretive and illegal” pay culture at the BBC.
All “troublemakers” know that if they fail to make a difference (and even when they succeed) they often forfeit careers. It’s a landmark decision because on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, a piece of legislation that suffers from having the bite of a new-born babe, the case marks a major confluence of changes that may yet accelerate justice.
Critical masses of women with a much more objective view of their own value are fighting back. At the BBC and across other sectors, women are again acting collectively and smartly and some have risen high enough to wield clout. October, for instance, saw the launch of #MeTooPay, led by women such as Dame Minouche Shafik, former deputy governor of the Bank of England, and Dame Carolyn McCall, head of ITV, demanding transparency in the equal pay legislation so bosses can be asked what male colleagues are paid.
It took the Dagenham Ford workers 17 years from their first strike in 1968 (not much supported by the unions) before these women won the right grade and pay for the job, matching the male rate. Now, the sheer number of women in work, often underpaid and overqualified, has brought a toughness. Veterans are reaching their 50s and older – Ahmed is 51. Like snakes shedding skin, they long ago abandoned their gratitude at being given a job, any job. Many have fully heeded historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s warning: “Wellbehaved women seldom make history.” Fearless, they have cause to kick off.
The number of women in their 50s and 60s in work has risen by 75% in 20 years from 2.7 million to 4.8 million; another critical mass. But for them, the gender pay gap is at its most extreme. Women’s average salaries in this group are 28% – £12,509 – lower than men’s. It’s not just about the money – the Ahmed case captures in miniature how the establishment frustratingly keeps men but not women in pocket.
Equal pay for work of equal value meant, for instance, that jobs were “evaluated” and regraded, women became supervisors, not managers, operators, not technicians and were cheaper. Or they were segregated into women-only occupations so the legislation didn’t apply. Meanwhile, employers picked those most like themselves – male and white – using criteria known only to the boys.
Now that monopoly is being challenged; diversity is slowly inching its way in. In March, the Equality and Human Rights Commission publishes its report into discrimination at the BBC. The institution has yet to decide whether it will appeal against the Ahmed decision –it would be foolish and costly to do so. It has also promised to close the gender pay gap, currently at an average 6.7% but far wider in some grades, by this year. Women will insist.
The BBC is a public institution and it ought to be a beacon of good practice. It needs to end inflated salaries, inject transparency and stop breaking the law. That still means “talent” will demand a premium but not nearly so absurdly high and, by rights, no longer at a cost to women and fair play.
Samira Ahmed: ‘Her case captures in miniature how the establishment keeps men but not women in pocket.’