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September 13, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:20am

BBC’s Carrie Gracie: Leading battle for equal pay is ‘both a privilege and a curse’

By Charlotte Tobitt

Being a figurehead in the equal pay battle has been both a “privilege and a curse,” the BBC’s former China editor Carrie Gracie has said.

Gracie resigned from her role in January last year in protest at inequalities at the BBC, claiming it had a “secretive and illegal pay culture”.

Her battle for equal pay began in July 2017 after the BBC published its first list of staff earning more than £150,000.

The journalist learned she was on less than North America editor Jon Sopel or Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen despite having asked for equal pay to her male colleagues when she accepted the job in 2013.

She has now written a book, Equal, about her experiences and prevailing inequalities in the wider working world, with advice for employers and female and male employees on how to tackle it.

Unequal pay ‘common refrain’ in journalism

Speaking to Press Gazette, Gracie says she became aware how many women are affected by unequal pay from the day she resigned and made her grievances public with an open letter in the Times.

“Amazing numbers of journalists complain about this,” she said.

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“From the very first day when I came out and there were journalists waiting to talk to me on 8 January… there were female journalists saying ‘thank you so much for raising this because it’s a problem for me, it’s a problem for her, it’s a problem for the next person, but we can’t raise this in our newsroom because we feel too vulnerable’.

“’We feel intimidated, we feel we will be victimised if we do it’.

“Obviously I meet a lot of journalists and it’s a common refrain.”

Gracie, who still works as a BBC News presenter, says it can be “very hard” for women to challenge their bosses in the news industry because of the prevalence of structural inequalities like the motherhood penalty, and unconscious and conscious gender biases.

“It’s at the [worse] end of the spectrum in some cases with a winner takes all culture where there’s a kind of favoured elite and the winners look like the next generation of winners in a slightly repeating cycle.

“And winner takes all cultures need to be even more careful about pay equality because, of course, if the pay structure becomes steeper and steeper then it’s ever more important for that pay structure to have equal and fair rules because otherwise it just becomes a culture of vested interests repeating.”

BBC women ‘undervalued’ for decades

Gracie is still part of the hundreds-strong BBC Women group which formed in 2017, and says she “wouldn’t be surprised” if some of the equal pay grievances still being pursued end up at, or close to, employment tribunal.

“It’s tough,” she says. “Some of those women have been undervalued for decades.

“For the BBC to turn around and acknowledge that it has undervalued them for a long period of time is a difficult thing for any employer to do and a difficult thing for the BBC to do – even if those bosses could change their own mindsets and acknowledge their value.

“So you have to carry on and push the cases quite hard.”

Gracie did precisely that, eventually winning an apology from the BBC, an acknowledgement that she should have been paid as much as Sopel, and backdated pay which she donated to the Fawcett Society to set up a fund for women who need legal advice on equal pay claims.

Gracie says the journey to get to that point left her “shocked by how almost impossible it was to get equal pay despite being a senior high-profile journalist in an organisation committed to fairness and equality and in a country with strong equal pay legislation and with a group of powerful women behind me and with a good pro-bono lawyer and with a union and with the support of Parliament and the regulator”.

She adds that unequal pay does not only affect women’s income and subsequent quality of life in retirement, but damages their self-esteem “because they’re constantly treated like second class citizens and have lower promotional opportunities and less status because of the complex way that power and pay relate”.

Privilege and curse

Despite becoming determined to break the silence around pay and alert other women to what could be happening in their own workplaces, Gracie says it is “both a privilege and a curse” to have become a figurehead for the issue.

“It’s a privilege obviously to have a voice and to feel confident enough in my own work and in my own workplace that I can speak up,” she says.

“Sometimes it feels like a curse because it’s very exhausting and it’s very frustrating.”

A large part of the frustration comes because the UK, in theory, has had equal pay legislation in place for almost 50 years.

Gender pay gaps

Gracie makes sure to point out the BBC has the lowest gender pay gap among UK broadcasters – now a median gap of 6.7 per cent favouring men, down from 9.3 per cent in 2017 when it was first revealed.

BBC director-general Tony Hall has set the challenge of closing the corporation’s gender pay gap by the end of 2020.

Across the UK media industry, almost a third of companies saw their gender pay gaps increase (in favour of men) in 2018 compared to 2017.

In 2018 the Economist Group remains the UK media company with the highest median gender pay gap, with women on average paid 29.2 per cent less per hour than men.

But although the two could be said to be intertwined, the gender pay gap is not the same as equal pay for equal work. Many UK media companies have said their pay gap is the result of more men occupying senior roles.

Gracie’s three-point plan for the BBC

Asked what she wants the BBC to do going forward, Gracie shares a three-point checklist, starting simply with “pay women equally to men for the same work”.

Any exceptions must stand up to scrutiny with a reason that the woman herself would accept, Gracie adds. If the reason involves the woman having fewer skills and experiences, there must be a discussion of how she can reach the same level as her male colleagues.

“If you take a woman with you, you will not lose her trust when you say that,” Gracie says.

Her second wish is for effective communication between managers and staff, but not in a “top down patriarchal fashion”.

And thirdly, she warns against using internal grievance processes to “drain and distract and delay and defeat women”.

“Investigate these cases in good faith, rebuild trust by doing so, and hopefully things will then take a turn for the better.”

A BBC spokesperson told Press Gazette: “We resolved Carrie’s pay issue some time ago and the BBC is already a very different place to what it was a few years ago.

“We’ve said we want to lead the way on equality and have addressed the vast majority of pay queries raised with us. We have also put a new pay structure in place and significantly closed the gender pay gap.”

Picture: Fran Monks

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