I am liberal. I support the #metoo and #timesup campaigns. At North London dinner parties I even describe myself as a “feminist”.
I was also a manager at the BBC and I paid women less than men. Not all women, but some. I am deeply ashamed. Yet if managers — men and women — at the BBC were truthful they would admit that they all have stories of doing the same. I have two that show how managers end up doing bad things.
The first was when my news and current affairs department recruited a male on-screen reporter. He belonged to a part of the BBC that paid higher salaries and so when he moved to the new department his salary was higher than the two other on-screen reporters (one male, one female). The new reporter was worth every penny. He was great at his job and raised the profile of all the programmes in the series.
Within a year of his arrival the old male reporter left. That left two reporters and a massive gender pay gap. Some might argue that this was just a fact of life — an unfortunate function of the recruitment process. The fact is the female presenter was also excellent. Both worked hard to win awards and coverage in the press.
As a manager it was brilliant. We had two excellent journalists engaged in a bit of friendly competition; the department’s profile was increasing. There was just one problem: their pay difference. Everyone was aware of it, from HR — or “talent management” — to senior management, men and women.
Now comes the important part that is rarely mentioned: the licence fee. This had not been increased for years and as a manager I was being asked to find cuts. The last thing I could do was increase anyone’s salary. (Cutting salaries is all but impossible.) And so the gap between the two presenters persisted.
The licence fee freeze was also the reason why my best intentions as a manager led to another pay gap arising. It came when I took over a department where all the producers were men. I wanted to inject fresh blood, but budgetary constraints meant that we could not afford to appoint a new producer. To get round this I created an “assistant producer” position, a role in TV that can cover a broad range of responsibilities.
My thinking was that I could train up the new recruit, a woman, and in the short term get a “cheap” director. Eventually the existing producers would leave, enabling me to promote her. That was my plan but it ended up as another horrendous gender pay gap example.
The first two years were great. The new AP was talented and was quickly directing programmes. Very soon she was just as good as the male producers, effectively doing exactly the same work only on substantially less pay.
The problem was solved when the AP called in her union for help, and management were forced to explain how the situation was not discriminatory. She got her pay rise.
I was in management for more than eight years. I have to take responsibility for not solving any problems that lasted that long. Blaming licence fee constraints is not good enough. However, I have to accept that I often cared more about achieving budget cuts than pay gaps. Yet I know I am not the only manager who took their eye off the ball on the gender pay gap. If I were I doubt we would have cases like that of Carrie Gracie, BBC’s former China editor.
While I no longer work there, I love the BBC and want to see it recover from an issue that is tarnishing its reputation. Platitudes that men and women should be treated equally combined with sometimes outright denial that there is even a problem will not solve the crisis.
We must examine the structures that cause even “liberal feminists” to be complicit in contributing to pay gaps and take action to change them. Truth and honesty by those who actually decide what employees are paid will help. Let’s start that conversation.
The writer is chief international editor at China Global Television Network. He worked at the BBC for 24 years
Get alerts on UK business & economy when a new story is published