After a year of pay controversies, the BBC has revealed its 12 highest-paid stars are all men. When progress is this slow, it starts to feel insulting.
Change, many people are fond of saying, doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t just ask for things and expect them to happen all at once. You must be realistic, and you mustn’t be aggressive or shrill. You should think about all the structural, cultural, historic reasons that a situation might not be to your liking, and then, maybe, question whether you’re asking for a bit too much. Yes, a change is going to come, we’re told. But not overnight.
But sometimes, you look at the glacial pace of change, and you start to wonder whether it will ever happen at all. And you begin to think that maybe, the only option we have is to keep the outrage going, and to keep the pressure on.
That’s how I felt upon reading that the top 12 earners on the BBC’s new list of star salaries are all men. The top 12! That’s even worse than last year, when men only (‘only’) made up the top seven highest-paid stars at the broadcaster. Just two of the top 20 top-earning figures on this year’s list are women: Claudia Winkleman, who earns between £370,000 and £379,999 for her work on BBC Radio 2 and BBC TV (excluding her fee for her Strictly hosting duties), and Vanessa Feltz, who takes home between £330,000 and £349,000 for presenting shows on Radio 2 and Radio London. Amid a sea of rich men, theirs are the only female faces.
Here’s the thing. No one, least of all me, is arguing that every woman at the BBC should be paid as much as Gary Lineker, the number one star on the list, whose annual salary is at least £1.75m (the BBC publishes its salary data in £10,000 bands, making it impossible to know exactly what each person earns).
Frankly, I don’t think anyone – male or female – needs that much money, and I say that as someone who quite likes Lineker. My incredulous disappointment at the BBC consistently paying men more than women is not because I’m worried about whether Emily Maitlis (who earns up to £229,000, but doesn’t appear in the top 20 list) can afford her mortgage. But it beggars belief that after a year of pressure, this is the best the BBC can do.
Because in the last 12 months, the BBC has come under more scrutiny for its pay practices than almost any other UK organisation. The uproar started last summer, when the broadcaster published a list of its 100 top earners for the first time. In doing so, it revealed that only a third of those being paid over £150,000 were women – and just 10 were people of colour.
In response to that unpleasant disclosure, 40 high-profile women at the BBC – including Alex Jones, Kirsty Wark, Mishal Husain, Victoria Derbyshire and Geeta Guru-Murthy – signed an open letter, calling on BBC director general Lord Tony Hall to “act now” to redress the disparity.
Five months later, the BBC came under fire again when former China editor Carrie Gracie resigned, having discovered that two of her male counterparts were being paid “at least 50% more” than her. In another open letter, Gracie – who has worked for the BBC for more than three decades – said she was initially promised she would be paid in line with her male colleagues, and condemned what she described as the broadcaster’s “secretive and illegal pay culture”.
“Despite the BBC’s public insistence that my appointment demonstrated its commitment to gender equality, and despite my own insistence that equality was a condition of taking up the post, my managers had yet again judged that women’s work was worth much less than men’s,” she wrote.
Gracie eventually reached a financial settlement with the BBC last month, and donated the money to the Fawcett Society to help set up a legal fund for women needing advice on equal pay claims.
In other words, the broadcaster has spent the last year putting out fires when it comes to gender pay discrepancies. The whole world knows it needs to make some serious changes. And so it’s nothing short of astonishing that there are still so few women on that top-earners list.
To the BBC’s credit, there have been some improvements. The gap between the number of men and the number of women earning more than £150,000 per year has narrowed overall since last year, from 76:24 to 66:34 in favour of men. (This shift is largely down to several male BBC stars, including John Humphrys and Nicky Campbell, accepting pay cuts. But don’t feel bad for them: both men still earn over £400,000 a year.) In July, meanwhile, the broadcaster announced that it had reduced its mean average gender pay gap to 8.4%.
It’s also important to note that female employees at the BBC aren’t necessarily paid worse than women at similar organisations. In April, the government’s mandatory reporting deadline forced ITN (which makes programmes for Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV, among others) to reveal a mean gender pay gap of 19.6%, while Sky reported an overall mean gender gap of 11.5%. If the situation at the BBC isn’t great, it’s arguably even more bleak elsewhere.
But as a publicly-funded, supposedly unbiased broadcaster, the BBC will always be held to a different standard to private companies – and its flaws will always carry a different kind of emotional and moral resonance. If women are angry about the BBC’s failure to pay its female employees the same as men, it’s because the BBC, more than any other broadcaster, feels like an intrinsic part of the fabric of British society.
As a result, when we hear that the top 12 highest-paid stars at the BBC are all men, it serves as a reminder that women’s work is consistently devalued across the UK. It reminds us that the British gender pay gap stands at more than 18%, and that eight in 10 UK firms pay men more than women. It reminds us that there are still more CEOs called David than there are women leading FTSE 100 companies, and that a lack of women in senior roles is often used to excuse the gender pay gap, rather than highlighted as a major problem that needs fixing.
Perhaps most poignantly, it makes us feel like an institution that many women respect instinctively – a broadcaster that has provided the UK with brilliant entertainment and trustworthy news for decades – doesn’t have the same respect for its female employees.
Lord Hall, the BBC’s director general, said upon the release of this year’s figures that he knows the current state of affairs is “not good enough”. He said he wants to get to a point where the list of the BBC’s highest-paid stars is made up of 50% women. But, he emphasised, “these things take time”.
We’ve heard that one before. And we’re getting very, very tired of waiting.
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