The recent release of high-earner compensation data by the BBC has brought to light some uncomfortable facts about gender and racial pay gaps at the UK’s national broadcaster and sparked a discussion about the problem of pay inequity throughout the country.
As a publicly-funded entity, the BBC fell under the purview of a government initiative in this year’s Royal Charter that required it to release the names of nearly 100 employees who earned more than £150,000 annually. “License fee payers have a right to know where their money goes,” Culture Secretary Karen Bradley told Newsweek, referring to the £147 fee per device (TV, tablet, etc.) that funds all of the UK’s public broadcasting. “By making the BBC more transparent it will help deliver savings that can then be invested in even more great programs.”
BBC director-general Tony Hall objected to the government directive: “The BBC operates in a competitive market,” he told Sky News. “And this will not make it easier for the BBC to retain the talent the public love. Ultimately, the BBC should be judged on the quality of its programmes.”
Published earlier this month, the list revealed startling discrepancies between women and minorities and their white, male colleagues. Of the 96 names on the list, only one third were female and just 11 percent were black or minority ethnic (BME, the UK’s catchall term for non-white minorities). The top seven earners, as well as 12 of the top 14, were men. Many women were found to be making much less than men in similar roles, while others in prominent roles did not even earn enough to make it onto the list:
Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, earns between £200,000 and £249,999 – less than Eddie Mair, host of BBC Radio 4’s daily news magazine PM, who earns between £300,000 and £349,999.
The Guardian has also listed some high-profile female absentees from the list. Emily Maitlis, the newsreader, Sarah Montague, the presenter of the Today programme on Radio 4, and Louise Minchin, who presents BBC Breakfast, do not earn more than £150,000 a year according to the published list.
By comparison, Huw Edwards, who presents the 10 O’Clock News as well as major events and documentaries, earns between £550,000 and £599,999, and Dan Walker, who presented Breakfast, Football Focus and Olympic coverage in 2016, was paid between £200,000 to £249,999.
John Humphrys, who presents Today and Mastermind, earns £600,000 to £649,999 – more than double Mishal Husain, his female counterpart on the Radio 4 Today programme who earns between £200,000 and £250,000.
These discrepancies drew the ire of some UK politicians, particularly women. “The BBC needs to set an example,” Labour MP Harriet Harman told the Guardian. “Public money shouldn’t be spent in a way which is discriminatory. When you look at the structure and the pay, it is clearly discrimination. Now that it is out in the open, it will have to change.”
Prime Minister Theresa May was not shy about her conclusions from the data, either. “I think what has happened today is we have seen the way the BBC is paying women less for doing the same job as the men,” she said in an interview with LBC.
A group of over 40 women at the BBC agreed to meet with leadership to discuss solutions, but the corporation will likely face sex discrimination lawsuits as well.
“The BBC will need to show that the difference in pay is not directly on the grounds of sex, but also that – to the extent that it asserts it relates to other factors such as viewers’ demands and preferences – the differential treatment is justified,” Keely Rushmore, a senior associate at London law firm SA Law, explained to the Guardian.
BBC News reported that male presenters could be facing wage cuts, as the organization is looking to save £800 million per year by 2022 and may have no other way to free up the funds to close the gender gap. This runs directly counter to a recent study on pay equity by CEB (now Gartner), which found that most organizations are correcting pay gaps by bringing employee’s pay up over time rather than cutting. Understandably, enacting pay cuts is likely to have negative ramifications for recruiting, engagement, and retention. (CEB Total Rewards Leadership Council members can read the study here.)
The BBC story has also served as a vehicle for larger debates over pay inequality and diversity in the UK. At the Financial Times, Abhishek Parajuli noted that the BBC’s lack of ethnic minority was a microcosm of a general reality for British minorities, pointing to recent studies showing that BME employees make up only 6 percent of top management positions in the UK and 8 percent of Parliament, despite composing 14 percent of the working-age population.
The same is true of the gender gap: According to estimates by the UK’s Office of National Statistics, the gender pay gap for all employees stood at 18.1 per cent in 2016. Indeed, in his defense of the BBC’s pay practices, Hall noted that the broadcaster’s overall pay gap is only around 10 percent, much lower than the national average—though this argument did not go over well with female employees.
The BBC’s experience revealing pay gaps in just the top slice of its payroll may give other UK employers a sense of what to expect when they submit their own gender pay gap reports, as all organizations with at least 250 employees are required to do starting this year. Companies have decried the new requirements as burdensome and confusing, and say they won’t help solve the problem of pay inequality, but those that want to get ahead of the regulation should be prepared to explain any gender gaps that appear in their pay data and what they are doing to reduce them. As the BBC found out the hard way, being caught without a good answer to those questions is a recipe for a public relations debacle.