Long Reads

“I was paid less than my male BBC colleagues. This is what I did”

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Eleanor Bradford

Eleanor Bradford was paid significantly less money than her male counterparts while working as BBC Scotland’s health correspondent. Here, she offers her advice on tackling pay inequality.

Have you ever wondered how much you’re paid compared to your colleagues?

I didn’t – until BBC Scotland hired several men whose starting salaries were rumoured to be way more than mine. I started to ask my fellow specialist correspondents what they were on, and I was shocked to find that I was one of the lowest paid – despite having one of the busiest briefs. Of course, this shook my confidence. Why was I worth so much less?

The obvious reason was that I wasn’t as good, but I was told in appraisals that I was a ‘model correspondent’. I was in demand to provide reports for flagship UK-wide programmes, as well as BBC Scotland. The feedback from my managers and, more importantly, the audience was good. I hadn’t taken time out for maternity leave and I was extremely experienced.

Confused, I began to look into other reasons. The wealth of evidence out there about gender discrimination shocked me. Perhaps the most stunning example is that involving orchestras: in the Seventies, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women musicians. They decided to hold blind auditions, behind a curtain, but the imbalance continued. Then someone suggested that each candidate take off their shoes before they walked on stage. It was only then, when those hiring couldn’t hear the clip-clop of a women’s heels, that they began to employ more women. 

Unconscious bias is a cultural phenomenon and women are just as likely to discriminate against other women as men, as we have seen in Carrie Gracie’s case at the BBC. After all, she was assured by a female manager that she would be paid the same as her male colleagues.

Then there are the behaviours that we exhibit as women. Research suggests that we don’t apply for jobs unless we meet 100% of the criteria, whereas men will apply when they meet only 60%. We suffer from a lack of confidence in our abilities, while men have a more cavalier attitude to a job description and don’t suffer from the same level of self-doubt. This feeds through to our confidence when it comes to negotiating our pay, and was illustrated starkly to me by a friend who became senior in the BBC. He told me how another friend was on barely the minimum wage, despite being universally recognised as the best producer in the department. “I know she’s underpaid,” he said. “But she has never asked me for a raise.”

So should it be up to us to ask for more money, or should pay raises be automatic? Most of my friends said they were reluctant to ask for a salary increase because it seemed self-centred at a time when the department was clearly under tight financial constraints. Believe me, there was no spare cash sloshing around the satellite offices of the BBC.

This raises the question of what happens when it comes to recruiting new talent. If a man is offered an enticing salary to join the company, should the pay of all his co-workers be increased? At the BBC, the answer to this is easier. The corporation is publicly funded, and working there comes with prestige. There should be a going rate for the job and, if someone wants more, the BBC should be prepared to wave them goodbye and develop new talent. But in the private sector, the question is more difficult to answer. There is a marketplace and there is competition for top talent, especially for those involving difficult, thankless tasks.

But it is here that our unconscious bias comes into play. When faced with two identical CVs, one from ‘John’ and one from ‘Jennifer’, a multitude of studies have demonstrated that a perfectly reasonable group of adults will conclude that John is better suited for the job, and deserves more money. Thus, I found that the skills of my male colleagues were valued more highly and noticed more, even though our output was identical.

During my time at the BBC, a colleague and I set up a women’s group based on the free Lean In programme established by Sheryl Sandberg. The great thing about this programme is that it’s pro-active. There is a series of workshops to help you recognise the behaviours that you are more likely to exhibit as a woman that may hold back your career. This taught us about the bias in society and what we might be able to do to offset that. For example, women who say they are a member of a parent-teacher association are 79% less likely to get hired – and 100% less likely to get promoted than those who aren’t. It reinforces a cultural assumption that women always put their children ahead of their careers.

According to Lean In’s own propaganda, women who join the circles are more likely to get promoted. And that’s exactly what happened to several members of our group, including me, although it was to a position outside of the BBC.

So my advice is not to get angry, but to get educated. This isn’t a men versus women issue, it’s about our culture. Undoubtedly that culture needs to change, and we should all fight for that. But we need to understand the problem in order to address it. Oh, and the majority of messages of support I have received have been from men. So, if you do pluck up the courage to ask your male colleagues what they’re earning, you’ll probably find they are extremely supportive.

Eleanor Bradford has no commercial connections to the Lean In network and her fee for this article was donated to charity.

Image: iStock