My battle with the BBC for equal pay showed me how serious sexism at work still is

Like other kinds of sexist discrimination, pay inequality persists because of an imbalance of power. Only a dramatic change will address the problem

Caroline Barlow
Thursday 14 November 2019 10:33
Carrie Gracie on quitting the BBC over equal pay: There is a 'hunger for an equal, fair and transparent pay system'

My fight for equal pay cost me my job, two years of my life and over £36,000 in legal costs.

A steep price to pay, certainly – but one that I bore because, like many other women at the BBC and elsewhere, I was determined not to be silenced.

Watching the many women (and men) walking with Samira Ahmed to her equal-pay employment tribunal last week, I felt both moved by the support and solidarity shown by so many people and enraged that they ever had to resort to such a public act of protest to demand basic equality.

Enraged, but not surprised.

I worked at the BBC for more than six years and, in 2017, discovered that all 15 of my male peers were paid at least £9,000 a year more than me. After requesting an informal pay inquiry process, submitting a formal pay grievance, lodging an employment tribunal claim and eventually resigning, the corporation finally agreed to an out-of-court settlement earlier this year, although they still refused to tell me the actual salaries of my male peers.

Despite an escalating equal pay crisis, and increasing evidence that my experience is not an isolated one, the BBC has – to this day – utterly failed to provide a meaningful response. Which is not to say that the whole experience has been meaningless. On the contrary, it has taught me a lot.

As part of my settlement, I was granted a meeting with a BBC executive, a man who theoretically has the power to drive change at the corporation. Mere moments into the meeting, it became painfully clear that he knew nothing about my case and that he’d been pushed into it by those who negotiated my settlement on behalf of the BBC.

Two things that struck me during our conversation. The first was that he had no idea how discrimination operates, to the extent that he suggested I could have done more myself to resolve my own situation. The second was that he had clearly never considered the problem in human terms, but instead approached it as if women are just statistics to be improved.

Being treated in this way – as a problem to be begrudgingly solved rather than a person to be respected and treated fairly – is dehumanising.

Prompted by this treatment, during my equal-pay battle I joined the Women’s Equality Party. I was encouraged by the outrage, solidarity and activism I found there but I was also overwhelmed by many of the other women’s experiences and their bravery and determination in the face of horrific inequalities and abuses.

Many of these issues seemed to me to be more urgent than equal pay, but I began to realise that all of them stemmed largely from the same problem: an imbalance of power.

Much of my career has focussed on large organisational change projects including technology, HR and finance. Through this work, I’ve learnt that you can’t resolve problems if you don’t understand them, and that it doesn’t matter how good your solutions are if those in power don’t support you to implement them.

Fixing problems requires both understanding and power. When it comes to discrimination at the BBC, those who understand the problem have no power to fix it, while those who do have the power to fix it either don’t want to or don’t understand the problem.

In the fight against discrimination, women are expected to bear all of the consequences, while those who discriminate often face none. Whether the discrimination is conscious or not, the effect on the victim is the same.

When we fail to hold people accountable for their actions, we prioritise the comfort and privilege of those who discriminate over the rights of those who are discriminated against.

To address this, we need a seismic shift in power and accountability. As Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand – in a 2019 Global Institute for Women’s Leadership essay collection – writes: “We need to frame gender equality as a good that benefits everyone. The fight for equality is a tide that lifts all boats.”

But instead of joining women in this fight and embracing the benefits it would bring, the BBC is standing resolutely firm against that tide. As a result, it’s on the brink of drowning.

If BBC director general Tony Hall wants to eliminate discrimination, he needs to work with women and not against us, to open up a profoundly different conversation and to give those who understand discrimination, including the victims, the power both to find solutions and to implement them.

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