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Why are we surprised by the BBC's gender pay gap revelation?


Pay transparency may drive real change

'If you're a woman, you will earn less than a man.' (Teresa May in her first statement as Prime Minister in July 2016).

The most surprising aspect of the revelations that there is a gender pay gap at the BBC is that anyone should be surprised. The BBC was forced to publish the salaries of its top earners in July this year and the figures revealed that men earn more than women, often for doing very similar jobs. One suspects that if all TV and broadcasting companies were forced to publish the salaries paid to top people then a similar picture would emerge. Indeed, if the salaries of all senior people in the public and private sectors were published, there would probably be shown to be a significant gender pay gap.

Women earn less than men. Partly this is because of a prejudice against women in the workplace and partly it is because women suffer as a result of being cast as the main carers for children and the elderly. This takes them out of the workplace, often during their 20s and 30s when careers are traditionally developed, from which they never recover financially. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reported that ‘(T)here is, on average, a gap of over 10% even before the arrival of the first child. But this gap is fairly stable until the child arrives and is small relative to what follows: there is then a gradual but continual rise in the wage gap and, by the time the first child is aged 12, women’s hourly wages are a third below men’s.[1] The same 2016 report stated that the hourly rate earned by women was 18% less than that earned by men. This gap has been reducing but is still significant (the IFS reported it as being 28% in 1993).

It is a long time since June 1968 when 187 female Ford sewing machinists went on strike in protest at their jobs being classified as unskilled. This strike led to the adoption of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, which finally came into effect in 1975.[2] Progress has been made and the days of having separate (lower) pay scales for women have long since passed. Yet almost 50 years later there is still a significant pay gap between men and women. Almost 50 years later the government is still tackling unequal pay by introducing new regulations[3] making those who employ 250 or more people publish annually information about their gender pay gaps. Will these regulations make a difference? They might have some impact but they are only a statistical analysis of different mean figures for paying male and female workers.

One suspects, however, that there will be real change at the BBC. This is because actual salaries have been published and customers and workers have been able to easily identify trends and anomalies. The new government measures do not require this transparency. Women workers will still not be able to look at the pay earned by the man they work beside and know whether he earns more or not. The experience of the BBC should tell us that the only way to really end gender pay discrimination (and maybe other discrimination such as that based on ethnicity) is to publish all salaries so that workers can identify where the unfairness is taking place. A limited number of organisations already do this[4] but until we have pay transparency everywhere there will always be the fear that discrimination against women workers, compared to men, continues.



[1] Monica Costa Dias, William Elming and Robert Joyce The Gender Wage Gap Institute for Fiscal Studies 2016.
[3] w The Equality Act 2010 (Specific Duties and Public Authorities) Regulations 2017 and The Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017; see ACAS Managing gender pay reporting March 2017.