Joanna Williams

The BBC sisterhood has made the ultimate sacrifice – and asked for a pay rise

The BBC sisterhood has made the ultimate sacrifice – and asked for a pay rise
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The sisterhood is, apparently, ‘in full flow’ at the BBC. Since the publication last week of the salaries of its 96 highest paid presenters, discussion of the institution’s gender pay gap has filled air time and column inches. How can it be right that Clare Balding is paid less than Gary Lineker? Or that John Humphrys earns more than Sarah Montague?

But if being paid less than their male colleagues wasn’t bad enough, female presenters must, it seems, also use their ‘strong and loud voices’ on ‘behalf of all’ to tackle the entrenched sexism endemic not just within the BBC but everywhere.

In an open letter to the BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall, forty female presenters, including Emma Barnett, Victoria Derbyshire and Emily Maitlis, bravely demanded immediate action on the gender pay gap. In what is surely great news for the nation’s women, these stars have made the ultimate sacrifice and have declared that, with reluctance, they are prepared to accept a pay rise. Only in the name of gender equality and on behalf of all the sisterhood, of course.

A pay rise for female celebs is something we can all get behind. Theresa May was, for once, first in line: ‘We’ve seen the way the BBC is paying women less for doing the same job… I want women to be paid equally,’ she told LBC. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, declared the pay gap to be ‘appalling’ and announced, ‘The BBC needs to look very hard at itself.’

The letter’s signatories acknowledge that ‘Compared to many women and men, we are very well compensated and fortunate.’ This self-awareness means they can’t just phone their agents and get them to do their job properly by securing a fatter cheque in the next round of negotiations. Instead, this demand for a pay rise is dressed up as a feminist-inspired crusade.

I don’t buy it. First, the premise of their campaign is flawed. Most obviously, women at the BBC are not being paid less than men for the same work. It might seem to be the case that two presenters sitting alongside each other are doing the same job and should be paid the same. But when it comes to the salaries of celebs, nothing is so straightforward.

For a start, these stars rarely have only one job. Sitting on the sofa hosting a daytime television show might be combined, for one partner, with a weekend radio show or guest appearances on a comedy panel show. Even then, pay is not determined by hours worked but by audience share. Although it seems incredible to me, Gary Lineker does not host Match of the Day just because of his ability to look good in underwear. Instead he’s rewarded, apparently, for his previous reputation as a footballer. Clare Balding might be a brilliant sports presenter but she never put her arm round a tearful Paul Gascoigne in the 1990 World Cup semi-final.

Most people’s salaries are not determined by arbitrary measures of popularity. Most of us don’t have agents arguing with bosses on our behalf. Most of the engineers, secretaries, producers and journalists who work at the BBC will receive a standard rate for the job regardless of whether they are male or female.

The average gender pay gap across the BBC stands at 10 per cent; in comparison, nationally men earn, on average, 18 per cent more than women. So when it comes to pay equality the BBC is doing better than most. But even this 10 per cent gender pay gap is misleading. It takes no account of the hours worked, the jobs people do, or the age and experience of those doing them. It’s still the case that more women, especially when they have children, work part-time. As a result, they may earn more each hour than men but still take home less in total.

We should ask why it is that more women than men opt for part-time work. Similarly, we should ask why young women and men still tend to make different career choices when they begin their working lives. But focussing on the pay of 96 wealthy celebrities doesn’t open up these conversations. Instead it allows a small group of elite and privileged women to cry ‘sexism’ and secure more for themselves while not making any difference whatsoever to the lives of the women who make their coffee, clean their dressing rooms and apply their make-up.

Among those working in the least well paid areas, the gender pay gap is negligible. Minimum wage jobs pay the minimum wage to both men and women. For all their bluster about helping the sisterhood, I suspect the 40 presenters busy petitioning the BBC would prefer not to swap their cushy jobs for a less well remunerated position that had no gender pay gap.

If the feminists at the BBC want to set the rest of us an example, they should simply ask for more money without apologising or dressing the demand up as an act of political justice.