Samira Ahmed was unequally paid by the BBC, according to a unanimous judgement of sex discrimination handed down by the London Central Employment Tribunal last week. There is little doubt that this is a landmark case and a huge breakthrough for women, not just in the BBC but everywhere – but don’t expect the BBC to realise that any time soon.
I reached an out-of-court settlement with the BBC in May last year over tribunal claims including a claim of unequal pay, but this victory came only after a lengthy battle during which I felt forced out of my job for challenging the corporation.
I am delighted at Ahmed’s victory, which she fully deserves after her courageous battle. I also feel vindicated for myself and others, and hopeful that this judgement will help the many women still fighting for equal pay at the BBC. But my relief has been tempered by fury at the BBC’s response: “We have always believed the pay of Samira and Jeremy Vine was not determined by their gender [...]. We are sorry the tribunal didn’t think the BBC provided enough evidence about specific decisions.”
Roughly translated, I take that to mean “we didn’t break the law and we don’t have a discrimination problem. We just couldn’t find the right people or paperwork to prove it.”
From what I can tell, this attitude is nothing new. In November, I finally managed to secure a meeting with Tony Hall, the BBC director general, eight months after I left the corporation. Throughout my equal pay battle I had wanted to believe he was unaware of what was going on, but after talking to other women in similar situations I came to believe this was not the case. I was just the latest in a long line of women who had sat in his office and implored him to listen – to acknowledge that something was desperately wrong and to intervene.
As I left that meeting, my first thought was that it had been pointless. Yes, I had finally received some sort of informal apology, but since the BBC has always denied any discrimination against me these words felt empty. When I expressed this to him, he’d replied: “I know… But never mind.”
Over the last few months, I have been trying to get to the bottom of why my battle with the BBC caused me so much personal damage, partly to help me come to terms with it myself and partly to help others who have been, or are still, going through it. I have joined the Women’s Equality Party and worked with it in its campaigns for equal pay. I have written about the psychological tactics and emotionally abusive behaviours I experienced. I have come to understand just how common these experiences are, as many women have been in touch to say how my story mirrors their own.
I’ve spoken to women still fighting their claims, to those who’ve settled and stayed at the corporation. I’ve spoken to women who, like me, felt forced to leave – some with a settlement, but others with nothing.
I’ve heard how women’s careers, skills and experience have been systematically diminished and belittled, including those whose BBC careers span decades. I’ve spoken to women who have not yet been able to return to work and those who took unwanted employment elsewhere out of necessity. I’ve heard about the toll it’s taken on their health, their families and their relationships.
Most of them – like me – are not household names; this discrimination is happening to women throughout the corporation, including those in off-air roles and those who earn far less than the BBC’s high-profile stars. I explained to Tony Hall that women like me, who dedicated years of our lives to an organisation we loved, only took these steps as an absolute last resort – for our own sake, for other women and for the BBC itself. But it seems the message has still not sunk in.
Although I hope otherwise, I will not be surprised if the BBC appeals against Ahmed’s case. But even if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean it has accepted the full implications of the tribunal’s judgment. In the unlikely event that any seed of doubt has started to creep into the minds of senior BBC executives – that perhaps there is a problem in urgent need of fixing – I can’t see it lasting long. There’s always a consoling thought to fall back on, that this was probably an isolated case.
As I see it, the intractable problem at the BBC – an organisation that’s spent its entire existence working to communicate the truth – is that it really does believe everything it says. So even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, it has become incapable of contemplating that it might be wrong.
When it comes to understanding itself, the BBC is firmly in a post-truth era.
Caroline Barlow is the former head of product for the BBC’s design and engineering division. She worked for the corporation for six years
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