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The worm has turned – at last!

By Bridget Osborne

The worm has turned – at last! 24 July 2017

I’ve never understood why the gender pay gap persists after the Equality Pay Act of 1970 and the Equality Act of 2010. Presumably there are ways round the law but on the face of it you would think that the 40 + women presenters at the BBC who have written to Director General Tony Hall to complain of the unfair disparity between their pay and that of their male colleagues would have a strong case for suing the corporation on the grounds of discrimination.

Jane Garvey, one of the presenters of Woman’s Hour, was all for doing just that but already they have compromised by sending an utterly reasonable letter urging him to “correct this disparity” over pay now rather than waiting until his target of 2020, instead of dispatching a lawyer’s writ. “We all want to go on the record to call upon you to act now” it says. They are prepared to meet him to discuss it.

The release of details in the BBC’s annual report of how much presenters are paid has merely confirmed what anyone who has worked in the BBC has suspected for many years, that women are being paid less than men for the same work. Until now it’s been hard to prove because negotiations over pay are individual and private, but I’m willing to bet that behind the personalities on camera there is a whole phalanx of women producers and technicians also being paid less than their peers and the same will be the case in the independent sector.

So why is it that women are so undervalued? It’s partly historic. Women carry that legacy of decades of enforced housewifery. If you’re married you’re still presumed to be working by choice and likely to change your mind about it at any moment because it’s assumed that you have a husband who earns more and that theirs is the more serious career, or that you will get pregnant and pack it all in. When I worked on 5Live I wanted to change from night shifts to days shifts because my epileptic husband took such strong drugs that it wasn’t safe to leave him overnight in charge of a baby. When I broached the idea with my male manager he looked confused. He said they had arrangements for working mothers in place and I could choose to work part time. The idea of a married woman and mother who was also serious about her career didn’t compute and the notion that I might be the main breadwinner evidently just didn’t enter his head. I didn’t fit with his perception of what a working mother should be.

It goes deeper than that though. There are men who consider men to be superior; just better. When I applied in the early ‘80s for a producer job in radio current affairs which I should have been able to get, I didn’t even get an interview. When I asked the editor for feedback he literally said “I have enough little girls who can do research”. I should have sued him but I was so mortified I didn’t want anyone to know about it, let alone advertise my humiliation and I assumed people in power would believe him not me and I wouldn’t get a job anywhere in the BBC if I spoke up.

It is that insidious way the BBC establishment has of playing individuals off against each other which has also stopped women breaking through this conspiracy of unfairness thus far. Presenters are in a vulnerable position. When you perform on air your self is what you offer – your personality, looks, intelligence, charm, sense of humour, depth of knowledge and experience as well as your ability to read an autocue, write a script and do an interview. So when you put your head above the parapet and say “I’m worth more” you are inviting the answer “no you’re not, for the following reasons…” opening yourself up to a character assassination that doesn’t help you maintain the confidence you need to go on air.

If you have a show named after you or you are the sole presenter it puts you in a much stronger position. Jeremy Vine’s audience figures are twice those of Woman’s Hour but if the Woman’s Hour presenters aren’t making £150,000 they’re earning between a quarter and a fifth of his salary. You can argue he’s worth more because he’s more popular, but not five times more popular. I can see how John Humphrys is worth more than anyone else on the Today programme because he’s the character you associate with the ethos of the programme. But more than four times as much as the least paid presenter? And for Nick Robinson to be on £250,000 – £299,000 while Mishal Husain earns between £50,000 and £100,000 less is outrageous. Nick Robinson is not even a good interviewer; he’s far too interested in his own views to care about what his guests think.

But the most egregious sin is that Sarah Montague doesn’t even make the £150,000 bracket. That means she earns around half what he does. She has been at the BBC since 1997 and has presented Newsnight, Breakfast with Frost and Hardtalk on BBC World, as well as Today. And she’s good! She actually listens to what her interviewee is saying. This is a clear cut case of workers doing the same job – they all start work in the middle of the night, they all have to perform for three hours at the end of the shift when they are their most tired and they all have to stay across the news 24/7. But men are generally more pushy than women. I know for a fact that Nick Robinson makes a point of trying to get the coveted 8.10 interview for himself. This ruthless self-advancement came to a head during the election when it was reported by the Guardian that he was trying to get Sarah off the rota so he could present on the morning after the election.

I’ve worked with several of the women presenters who’ve written to Tony Hall and count a few of them as friends. They are not ruthless egomaniacs and maybe that is their problem. Now there is an opportunity to act together and make a breakthrough not just for themselves and the women coming after them but for the ranks of producers, researchers and technicians who are fed up with being screwed. So I hope the sisterhood stays strong and refuses to be mollified or picked off individually with little sweeteners. Stay strong sisters!