As Samira Ahmed wins her pay claim against the BBC, Sarah Shaffi says this is a huge victory for all women.
Every day for almost a week in November 2018, Samira Ahmed walked down a London street surrounded by a group of women (and a few men) of a variety of ethnicities, professional backgrounds and ages.
Sitting at my computer at home, I scrolled through pictures and videos of those walks on the #walkwithsamira tag, my fingers crossed and my heart with Ahmed (as a fellow journalist from an Asian background, she’s a huge inspiration to me), who was walking in to the tribunal where a judge would hear the sex discrimination equal pay claim she’d brought against the BBC.
Ahmed claimed the BBC underpaid her, to the tune of £700,000, for hosting audience feedback show Newswatch when compared to the amount Jeremy Vine was paid for hosting Points of View. While Ahmed received £440 per episode for Newswatch – which airs on the BBC News channel and BBC Breakfast – Vine was paid £3,000 an episode for BBC One’s Points of View. The pay differential, claimed Ahmed, was down to discrimination on the basis of sex.
During the tribunal the BBC argued that the two presenters were paid different amounts because Vine was better known than Ahmed, and because the two shows were very different.
But the judgement, released today, from Judge Harjit Grewal and panel members Mr S Godecharle and Mr P Secher found in Ahmed’s favour, saying her work on Newswatch was similar to Vine’s on Points of View. The 40-page judgement said that the BBC did not show “that the difference in pay was because of a material fact which did not involve subjecting the claimant to sex discrimination”.
Following the judgement, Ahmed said: “No woman wants to have to take action against their own employer. I love working for the BBC. I’m glad it’s been resolved. I’d like to thank my union the NUJ, especially Michelle Stanistreet the general secretary, my legal team Caroline Underhill of Thompsons Solicitors and my barrister Claire Darwin and everyone – all the women and men who’ve supported me and the issue of equal pay.
“I’m now looking forward to continuing to do my job, to report on stories and not being one.”
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A BBC statement following in response to the judgement said that the organisation was “committed to equality and equal pay”. The statement continued:“Where we’ve found equal pay cases in the past we’ve put them right. However, for us, this case was never about one person, but the way different types of programmes across the media industry attract different levels of pay.
“We have always believed that the pay of Samira and Jeremy Vine was not determined by their gender. Presenters – female as well as male – had always been paid more on Points Of View than Newswatch.
”We’re sorry the tribunal didn’t think the BBC provided enough evidence about specific decisions - we weren’t able to call people who made decisions as far back as 2008 and have long since left the BBC.”
The case is a huge victory for Ahmed, who showed untold bravery as a woman, and as a woman of Asian heritage, in bringing the case. In doing so, she opened herself up to a potent combination of racism and sexism, the type that can always be found in certain not-so-distant corners of the internet and the media when a woman of colour has the gall to stand up for herself. What’s more, she was exceedingly brave in taking on the very company that pays her salary, decides how much she works, and whose influence as a British institution is huge. How many of us would be willing to do the same? Or indeed, able?
Ahmed had the support of a union behind her (I could go on for ages about the value of unions, but have this Twitter thread on the subject from me instead), as well as some well-known figures; she was accompanied on her walk to the tribunal by people including Women’s Equality Party co-founder Catherine Mayer, BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty, and Reverend Richard Coles. Not all women would have a support network, and definitely not a high profile one, if they chose to bring a similar case.
But Ahmed’s victory is still a victory for all women who might be getting less pay for equal work because of their gender (even though the Equality Act 2010 enshrines in law that equal work should result in equal pay).
In taking on the BBC Ahmed showed that that we’re not longer willing to let pay discrimination slide, even from one of our biggest, most powerful institutions. She’s not the first to have done so; in 2018 Carrie Gracie published an open letter in which she revealed that as the BBC’s China editor she was earning significantly less than her male counterparts. Gracie, seeing no other option when discussions between her and BBC faltered, stepped down from her role to speak out.
When the NUJ wrote to the BBC to raise a grievance on behalf of Ahmed, it also raised grievances on behalf of 120 other women. Ahmed is just the tip of the iceberg; while her case was ongoing a friend who works at the BBC told me that if Ahmed won, there was a long line of women waiting to bring their own pay cases.
Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the NUJ, said: “Since the tribunal ended, the NUJ has pressed the BBC to resolve all of our outstanding cases, resulting in numerous positive outcomes, but there is still work to be done. I’d call on the BBC to learn the lessons from this judgment, and to work constructively with the NUJ to sort these cases out.
“This outcome should also be a wake-up call for all employers.”
And that’s the crucial thing: all employers should think carefully about whether they pay their female and male employees differently, and why. Ahmed’s case is about her and the BBC, but it’s also about all women and all employers.
There’s a quote from the late, great Maya Angelou that runs through my head on a regular basis: “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
Today, that quote feels more relevant than usual, thanks to Ahmed. In standing up for herself she has, unknowingly, stood up for us all.
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.