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

The Observer - - Comment & Analysis - Yvonne Roberts is a for­mer chief leader writer of the Yvonne Roberts

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.

Tim P Whitby/ Getty

Samira Ahmed: ‘Her case cap­tures in minia­ture how the es­tab­lish­ment keeps men but not women in pocket.’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.