When a woman finds she’s earning less than the man next to her

Review: Vivien Horler

Equal – A story of women, men & money, by Carrie Gracie (Virago)

In 2013 BBC journalist Carrie Grace was made the corporation’s first China Editor. With the country a rising superpower, the BBC believed its story needed to be reported in depth.

Gracie had worked for the BBC for more than 30 years, had extensive Chinese experience, and spoke fluent Mandarin. She accepted the job on the basis that as the two jobs were on a par, she would be paid the same as the North America Editor.

The BBC is funded by license fees, paid by ordinary Britons for the privilege of listening and watching programmes produced by an organisation whose printed values include: “Trust is the foundation of the BBC; we are independent, impartial and honest.”

But it appeared the BBC was less than transparent when it came to salaries. The government stepped in; under the terms of the corporation’s 2017 Royal Charter, it was obliged to publish all salaries higher than that earned by Britain’s prime minister: £150 000 a year (roughly R2.5million at the time).

It turned out, surprise surprise, the highest paid employees were all white men – Graham Norton was earning between £850 000 and £900 000.

When Gracie, earning £134 000, looked at the list of the top salaries, she wasn’t on it. Yet there was the North America Editor, Jon Sopel, earning between £200 000 and £250 000.

Stung, Gracie remembered a remark her boss once made when she visited London from Beijing: “Carrie, it’s always a joy to see you. You deliver so much and ask so little.”

Later Gracie thought: “Deliver so much and ask so little? That should have run an alarm bell.”

Fifty years ago this year, Britain introduced the Equal Pay Act. Under this act, it is illegal in the UK to pay women less for equal work. Education and experience can influence differentials in pay, but when people are doing the same work for different salaries it is called pay discrimination, and in the UK that is illegal.

When the BBC salary list story broke, many people – in the government, in the media and in the high street – were outraged. Why had the BBC women not fought this before?

But as Gracie points out, you can’t correct what you can’t see. “If pay secrecy means you don’t know there’s a pay gap between you and a man doing equal work, you can be a victim for years without having any idea.”

And this built-in discrimination follows women all their lives. Pay increases are generally based on what you’re earning, so if you’re earning less than your peers, your increase comes off a lower base. As Gracie says: “In the United States, for example, an average woman will make nearly $600 000 less than a man over the course of her working life. The resulting inequality then follows her into retirement.”

Thinking about the revelations, Gracie realised: “Pay is about how others value us, and if we suddenly discover they value us much less than we thought, it feels like a betrayal.”

She quotes a Financial Times article written by Margaret Heffernan, a woman who worked for a start-up and discovered she was being paid half as much as her male colleagues.

Heffernan wrote: “Being underpaid in relation to your peers in an organisation takes your abilities, experience, goodwill and dedication and casually degrades them. The contempt implied is beyond unnerving; you cannot but feel worth less. This anger should not be mistaken for self-pity or vanity because it is exactly the opposite: it is fury at oneself for having been fooled.”

Several days after the salary list story broke, 44 of the BBC’s most senior on-air female employees, including Gracie, wrote to the director general saying the corporation now had an opportunity to do the right thing. The letter was largely ignored.

 

Gracie began asking questions among her colleagues and then doing wider research about equal pay. She also lodged an equal pay complaint with the corporation.

Three months later the BBC conceded she should have had a pay rise in April of that year, but due to “an inadvertent oversight” this had not happened. They now wanted to increase her salary from £134 000 to £180 000.

Many of us might have quietly accepted this, but Carrie Gracie is made of sterner stuff. She said she wasn’t looking for more money, she wanted equality. And the new figure would still be at least £20 000 less than the North America Editor earned.

Gracie reasoned that while the North America job was higher profile, the China job, with its demand for Mandarin among other requirements, was harder. “Like Ginger Rogers, I did everything the North America Editor did except (I did it) backwards and in high heels…but in Mandarin and with a police state at my back.”

Six months or so after the salary list revelations, Gracie resigned as China Editor in protest, but not from the BBC. Back in London she continued her fight.

It is a matter of historical record that due her doggedness and the support of many people, particularly women colleagues, Gracie eventually won her case. The BBC apologised, conceded that as China Editor she had been as valuable as the other international editors of the time, and paid her £373 000 in back pay.

In line with her conviction that it wasn’t about the money, she donated the full amount – what she called “a grotesquely large sum for a public service broadcaster to pay any employee” – to a charity that offers free legal support to low-paid woman facing pay discrimination.

This book is part personal story, and part primer, full of advice to women who feel they may be in a similar situation to Gracie.

She says she wrote it for the millions of women in Britain and around the world “who are at grave risk of being undervalued and underpaid at some stage of their working life”. She also wrote it for their employers, and their male co-workers “who would like to support female colleagues but don’t know where to start. Start here. I wrote this book for you.”

 

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