Iam a woman employed by the BBC. I am a BBC woman. Both configurations are factually accurate, but the latter is weighted with deeper symbolism for me these days. The plural, BBC Women, is the collective name we have given ourselves in choosing to highlight a very simple principle: equal pay for equal work. It is a matter of the law, the Equality Act of 2010.
And the group of BBC women I am a part of now numbers more than 200, including some of the most high-profile at the corporation. We are women who support our colleague Carrie Gracie in her public and eloquent pursuit of that principle of parity. Women who may have specific pay grievances or none, but, above all, have become involved in this issue because it is the right thing to do. And because we all want things to improve for future generations in the industry.
I love and respect the BBC, as an employee and a consumer of its content, and have enjoyed the privilege of a satisfying and, I hope, useful career, serving our audiences with stories from all over the world. That I write this anonymously is a sign of both fear and anger among many BBC women, who, even after joining the group, stay silent. Fear that we might be seen as obstructive for speaking out, and anger because the reason for our speaking out is neither obstructive nor designed to make trouble. We just want to see an existing law enforced.
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell’s words are embedded in the wall of the front of the building in which I work, next to his statue. And I believe in them.
But the BBC cannot trumpet its editorial independence in telling truth to power, only to expect its highly educated and talented employees to stay silent when they are lied to. And we have been lied to. Both in individual cases and collectively. You could argue that it is a form of gaslighting: continuing to tell women that there is no inequality and, over a period of time, they think they are imagining it. Knowledge is power.
And it is only in the wake of Carrie Gracie’s letter that the BBC has spoken for the first time about pay equality, rather than fair pay. It now needs to acknowledge that it fully supports the principle of equal pay for equal work as understood by the law. And it needs to stop talking about the gender pay gap, as though it is the same thing. It isn’t. Gracie’s case has opened up a crucial conversation, about a central cultural institution in this country, one whose brand carries, on behalf of Britain, unrivalled and envied soft power all over the world.
The leak of a private conversation between two senior broadcasters (John Humphrys and Jon Sopel) about Gracie, should be more than discomfiting. That the BBC management is said to be “deeply unimpressed” is good. But the private conversation isn’t just a sideshow, it is a symptom of a cultural malaise. It represents hardwired hostility and contempt towards women who demand what is right and legal. This can’t be shrugged off as “jocular exchange” or “banter” between old mates. And the speaking out will continue: Gracie’s case will be heard again, when evidence is presented at a select committee at the end of the month. And there are many like her, at all levels of the corporation. I expect BBC managers wish this would go away. They could see it differently: as an opportunity to create real commitment to the law and to transparency, and to create a real cultural shift. This is a generational opportunity to show that as a public service institution the BBC is an exemplar.
None of us BBC Women wants to create a situation that could be ruinous for an organisation we are committed to and audiences we want to serve. But this situation is of the BBC’s own making over a very long period of time.
It has always cited market forces and market value when it comes to its talent bill, a bill the government has urged it to bring down in two successive licence fee deals. For a public service broadcaster, salaries of the top earners are indeed inflated. And if individuals bargain with the BBC and say they could earn more money elsewhere, perhaps the BBC should acquire the confidence to let them go. There are many, many talented people – and some of them are even women – who could step into their shoes. Given the BBC’s unique nature, in many cases there are no comparable programmes individuals could go to and still have the same platform they have at the BBC.
And to those people who think we are just being greedy and should be grateful that we have jobs and decent salaries, I would say the following: we are immensely grateful but it isn’t greedy if the person sitting next to you doing the same job earns more because their genitalia give them some advantage. And we know that we still live in a society that, despite much social change, still privileges men over women. Not only is this unfair, it is unlawful.
And much more important: if this is happening to a group of articulate, clever and highly educated women then it must surely be happening in many other industries. Iceland recently made it mandatory for companies to prove they pay women and men doing the same jobs the same salary. Equal pay law in the UK is not applied consistently and the onus is on women to have the knowledge. And now BBC Women do, we’re going to carry on demanding that the law is applied. Equality isn’t a grey area. It is a universally acknowledged value. You either believe in it or you don’t. You are either committed to it or you are not.