Unconscious bias is subtle but pervades every part of society. There have been numerous studies which demonstrate that, when faced with identical CV’s, both men and women favour a CV with a man’s name at the top, over one with a woman’s name. So it is hardly surprising that this inherent bias has found its way onto our TV screens. The shock has been just how stark that bias becomes when you express it in cash.
Initially I was never particularly surprised that my continual requests for more pay were turned down by the BBC because, after all, money was tight. We had been through several rounds of redundancies and we were all doing more with less. But it slowly dawned on me that my male counterparts didn’t seem to be getting the same knockbacks as me. Then a series of specialist journalists were appointed, they were male, and they were rumoured to have starting salaries which were in excess of £10,000 more than I was on.
As soon as I mentioned the words ‘equal pay review’ in my pay request, I was awarded an immediate increase of £5000. That took me up to average pay, whoopee. But I was looking after one of the busiest briefs, bringing in regular exclusives and winning awards. I was told I was a ‘model correspondent’. Did that deserve average pay?
On the other hand, I was conscious that the BBC was funded by the licence-fee payer. I was not on the enormous salaries we have heard about in recent weeks, not by a long shot! I would ride my bike to a press conference if it would save the BBC a taxi fare. I felt my salary was appropriate for a publicly-funded body. Yet others were getting paid more for doing the same, and I was the sole breadwinner for my family. My partner gave up his job when we adopted two boys, and he was needed at home because my crazy job meant I could be (and was) called upon at a moment’s notice to go anywhere in Scotland.
Eventually I felt I was not going to get more pay and neither were there many career opportunities for me within the BBC, so I moved on.
That meant I could be named without fear of repercussion and viewers, particularly in Scotland, could judge for themselves. My career was all there, on screen, and they could make up their own minds about whether I was performing as well as my male peers.
So, how does the BBC tackle this almighty mess? The initiatives set out by the Director General today are a start. The BBC needs clear targets with incentives to meet them. I’m suspicious of warm words. It needs better training for those who are hiring, and recruitment processes which give everyone a fair chance. Currently, it’s still possible to hire someone for a short-term position over a cup of coffee. But we, the licence-fee payers, need to give the BBC room for manoeuvre as it tackles this societal problem. We may need to focus on fixing the future rather than the past. The BBC will need outside expertise, and that costs money. It will need to assign staff to this task alone, rather than adding it to someone’s bulging inbox. That costs money too.
The BBC is a dynamic, much-loved institution full of talented and dedicated staff. It has a duty to fix this because it’s not at the whims of the market, like other news organisations. It should fix it because the BBC should be reporting on unfairness, not perpetuating it. But, above all, if the BBC can’t use its talent to find creative solutions, then who else can?