Read Lauren Collins's exceptional piece about the BBC equal pay expose which appeared in The New Yorker this week.
The first weeks of July, 2017, were especially intense for Carrie Gracie, the BBC’s China editor. She travelled seven thousand miles to record more than a dozen television and radio pieces. The dissident Liu Xiaobo died, and Gracie scrambled to explain to the British public why the Chinese authorities had found him so dangerous. “For a jealous ruling party, an outsider with conviction is an affront,” she wrote, “and those who cannot be bought or intimidated are mortal enemies.”
On July 14th, Gracie left for a vacation. She flew to London from Beijing—where, for two hundred days a year, she lived alone, in a rental apartment—and caught a train to the Scottish coast. She planned to unplug from the news cycle and spend time with her children, Rachel, twenty, and Daniel, nineteen. They went to the beach, walked their dog, ate fish-and-chips. On the eighteenth, they celebrated Daniel’s birthday. The next day, a friend of Gracie’s asked her whether she had seen that the BBC—under pressure from the government, as a publicly funded broadcaster, to be more transparent about its costs—had published a list of its highest-paid stars.
Sixty-two men and thirty-four women qualified for the list, which concerned on-air talent earning more than a hundred and fifty thousand pounds a year. The highest-earning woman was making £1.7 million less than the highest-earning man. A number of the BBC’s famous female names were conspicuously absent, a scandal over which the London media were in a frenzy. “Piers Morgan sent me a text and then a D.M.—‘I’m so outraged by your rate’—clearly digging,” the sports broadcaster Clare Balding, who appeared at the bottom of the list, told me. Being on the list meant a putatively embarrassing breach of one’s financial privacy. But for many of the BBC’s top women, not being on it, in an organization where opportunity often followed cost, could be a professional liability.
The BBC had four foreign editors. Jeremy Bowen, who covered the Middle East, was paid between £150,000 and £199,999; Jon Sopel, who covered North America, got between £200,000 and £249,999. Neither Gracie, whose salary was £135,000, nor Katya Adler, who covered Europe, appeared on the list. Gracie calculated that she and Adler were getting paid around fifty per cent less than their male colleagues. “It’s such a deep blow that your body kind of goes into a profound stop,” she told me recently, of the revelation.
Gracie, who is fifty-six, considered the China-editor job to be the pinnacle of her career. The daughter of a diplomat, she was raised mostly in Scotland, the second-eldest of five siblings, among whom “aggressive idealism” was a common trait. After graduating from Oxford, she spent a year teaching English and economics in Chongqing, in southwest China. “You could tell that big things were afoot, even if it was a nightmare to work out what they were,” she recalled. She started at the BBC in 1987 and, four years later, became a China correspondent with the BBC World Service. She threw herself into Chinese life, becoming fluent in Mandarin and falling in love with a rock musician named Cheng Jin, whom she later married. In 1997, just after the Hong Konghandover, the BBC appointed her Beijing bureau chief. She was the main breadwinner of the family. “There was a lot of rattling around in minibuses as a heavily pregnant person with a small baby,” she has said.
In 1999, Rachel, still a toddler, got sick. Gracie consulted doctors in Beijing, and then evacuated Rachel to London, where they learned that she had leukemia. Jin visited from China when he could. (The couple divorced in 2006.) Effectively a single mother, Gracie made a “necessary move” into television, which had a regular schedule, becoming a morning presenter on the BBC’s news network. She continued to cover China from abroad. In 2005, she began shooting the first installment of “White Horse Village,” a ten-year project that chronicled the transformation of a rural community. (She received a Peabody Award for it, with the citation praising her “lean, eloquent narration” and her “startlingly candid interviews.”) In 2011, Gracie received a diagnosis of breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy and underwent chemotherapy, but was back on air within eight months, delivering bulletins about the eurozone crisis with a nearly bald head.
In early 2013, when the BBC offered Gracie the newly created China-editor position, she was ambivalent. Her teen-age children were in school in England and had important exams coming up. But she had often questioned the BBC’s approach to the coverage of China, and women were underrepresented in the most visible onscreen roles. Eventually, the director of news “got down on bended knee,” as he described it to Gracie, and begged her to accept the job. She did, on the condition that she be paid the same as her male counterparts. The BBC assured her that she would be, offering her a hundred and twenty thousand pounds. “I said, ‘If I go, I’m going to have to pay to put my son into boarding school in England,’ and they said, ‘O.K., well, make it one-thirty,’ ” Gracie recalled. She accepted, proud that she had won a commitment to pay parity. “I’d been reading ‘Lean In,’ and I really sort of believed in that,” Gracie said, referring to the Sheryl Sandberg book that urges women to do all they can to seize professional opportunities.
After hearing about the high-earners list, Gracie initially blamed herself for her lower salary, trying to figure out what she could have done differently. On July 22nd, she learned that a group of colleagues, calling themselves BBC Women, planned to send a letter to Tony Hall, the corporation’s director general. “This is an opportunity for those of us with strong and loud voices to use them on behalf of all, and for an organisation that had to be pushed into transparency to do the right thing,” it read. Gracie signed.
She believed deeply in the BBC’s public-service mission. “Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest,” read the “BBC Values” on the building pass that she’d worn for years. The news of the pay disparity felt as personal—as undermining to her sense of shared reality—as learning about an infidelity. The BBC presenter Samira Ahmed wrote, “I can only describe the feeling of being kept on much lower pay than male colleagues doing the same jobs for years as feeling as though bosses had naked pictures of you in their office and laughed every time they saw you. It is the humiliation and shame of feeling that they regarded you as second class, because that is what the pay gap means.”
Gracie, whose mother died when she was seventeen, had learned forbearance at a young age. For days, she wrestled with her feelings. “Once you know the truth, what are you going to do with it?” Gracie said to me. “Are you going to quit, live with it, or try to act?” Coming to terms with her choice, she said, was “like watching something crystallize in a glass of water.”
In August, she wrote privately to Tony Hall. “I imagined that, once I pointed out my case and pointed out what the law was, we’d sort it out,” she recalled. After two months, the corporation offered her a thirty-three-per-cent raise. It was a substantial amount, but still left her salary far short of her male equivalents’. She turned down the money and filed a formal grievance. For months, bureaucratic wrangling consumed her life. She began to feel, she said, that the BBC was waging “a crushing war of attrition, with casual contempt for its employees.” On January 7th, she published an open letter on her personal Web site.
“Dear BBC Audience,” it began. “My name is Carrie Gracie and I have been a BBC journalist for three decades. With great regret, I have left my post as China Editor to speak out publicly on a crisis of trust at the BBC.” Gracie explained that she felt well remunerated. She wasn’t asking to be paid more, only to be paid equally. The BBC, she asserted, was perpetuating a “secretive and illegal” pay culture, and, in doing so, failing to live up to its principles. “It is painful to leave my China post abruptly and to say goodbye to the team in the BBC’s Beijing bureau,” she wrote. “But most of them are brilliant young women. I don’t want their generation to have to fight this battle in the future because my generation failed to win it now.”
The simplicity of equal pay often gets lost in jargon and statistics. They can make your eyes glaze over, even if you care about the issue. All the concept really means is that people in the same workplace should receive the same compensation for doing the same work. Equal pay is easily confused with the gender pay gap, which is a measure of the difference between men’s and women’s average earnings. A law firm can pay equally and still have a gender pay gap, if most of the women it employs are associates (earning the same as their male peers) and most of its partners are men (outearning the associates).
In America, as the Harvard economist Claudia Goldin explains in “Understanding the Gender Gap,” women worked at high rates in the preindustrial era, when the home and the workplace were often one—a farm, a general store. Industrialization brought a division of labor: men went out to jobs and women continued to maintain the household. When women did have jobs outside the home, they tended to leave their positions at marriage. They were seen as temporary workers, and their wages, viewed as holdovers or supplements to a male income, were accordingly discounted. In 1861, the Treasury Department, facing a labor shortage brought on by the Civil War, decided to hire women to trim and cut sheets of paper money. These “government girls”—some four hundred of them by 1862—were paid an annual salary of six hundred dollars, half that of the lowest-paid male clerk. The Post Office employed dozens of women in the Dead Letter Office, where the letters were opened by men, in case of immoral content.
In the nineteen-twenties, labor activists successfully lobbied for legislation that limited the hours and conditions under which women and children worked. The laws curbed exploitative practices, but they also cemented the status of women as a secondary class of workers, for whom protection was more important than equality. At the time, many employers effectively banned women through “marriage bar” policies, which were justified on various grounds, ranging from family values to the belief that married women were less reliable workers. (The people who made these arguments often had little problem hiring women, many of them black or recent immigrants, to clean their houses and care for their children.) Goldin found that in the early nineteen-forties, eighty-seven per cent of American school boards would not hire a married woman, and seventy per cent of them would terminate a single woman upon her marriage.
The entry of women into traditionally male sectors—ironworking, truck driving—during the Second World War led to a push for “equal pay for equal work.” Ironically, the idea gained momentum because of men, who feared that employers would use cheap female labor to undercut their wages after the war. It wasn’t until 1963 that the Equal Pay Act enshrined into law the principle of equal pay for men and women. (The Civil Rights Act then made it illegal to pay someone less on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.) Still, it remained common practice for newspapers to segregate their help-wanted ads by sex. One 1964 advertiser in the Times sought a “Jill of All Trades,” promising that “occasional overtime at time & ½ will help fill your ‘Piggy Bank.’ ”
Today, for every dollar American men earn, American women earn eighty cents. This means that American women effectively work from January 1st until March 15th without getting paid. The pay gap is even more pronounced when you break it down by race and ethnicity. While women of Asian descent earn eighty-seven cents on the white-male dollar, black women are typically paid sixty-three cents and Latina women fifty-four. The pay gap exists in almost every field and region. Finance has one of the largest, nursing one of the smallest. Still, a study found that male nurses, who constituted seven per cent of those surveyed, had higher salaries than ninety-three per cent of their female colleagues.
The gender pay gap conjures visions of old men in starched shirts, hankering for the days of dictation and Martini lunches. Outright sexism contributes to the disparity, but experts cite a mix of factors, including occupational sorting (the tendency of men and women to funnel into different professions, with male-dominated ones being better paid), the lack of women in senior roles (and on company boards), and the fact that women are more likely to hold part-time jobs (often as a result of child- and parental-care responsibilities). Many of these conditions are interrelated. A recent study from the Census Bureau shows that the gender pay gap between like-earning heterosexual spouses doubles immediately after they have a child. If the mother is between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five, her earnings never recover—the “motherhood penalty.” (Men, on the other hand, profit from a “fatherhood bonus.”) A woman earning less than her partner, of course, is more likely to go part time. Even if she knows that she is underpaid, she may hesitate to call attention to the problem, since underpaid people often can’t afford to fight in court.
The gender pay gap is often justified by the argument that women go into lower-status, less competitive fields. But research has shown that when women saturate a well-compensated field the pay declines, and vice versa. The wages of ticket agents, for example, dropped forty-three per cent between 1950 and 2000, as the job feminized. Computer programmers, meanwhile, made modest wages until men took over much of the profession. Even when you adjust for factors such as education and industry, an unexplained discrepancy of an estimated five per cent persists. In other words, the gender pay gap cannot be explained away by women’s perceived or real choices. “What is left over is what we can’t explain with anything that can be easily measured, and that’s basically the proxy for discrimination,” Ariane Hegewisch, of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, has said.
Half of American women who work say that they are the primary breadwinners of their families. The I.W.P.R. estimates that if women were paid equally, the United States economy would gain five hundred and twelve billion dollars in additional wage and salary income, spurring economic growth. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, a working woman, on average, would receive enough money for fourteen more months of childcare and a year and a half’s worth of food. Pay inequity has been illegal for almost sixty years, but, at current rates, America will not close the gender pay gap until at least 2059.
In recent months, the movement to tackle gender pay discrimination has been gaining momentum. Even a few years ago, the stigma of being underpaid was such that the news that Jennifer Lawrence was given less for “American Hustle”—seven per cent of profits to her male co-stars’ nine per cent—constituted one of the major revelations of the Sony Pictures e-mail hack. Now prominent women are speaking out about lousy deals. “We need to push this issue to the front of conversations so that employers across the U.S. can truly understand that all male and female employees must be compensated equally,” Serena Williams wrote in Fortune. “Not close. Not almost the same. Equally.” Williams didn’t explicitly complain about her own pay, despite the fact that she had earned $495,000 to Roger Federer’s $731,000 for winning the same tennis tournament.
With pussy grabbing and #MeToo has come a growing awareness that unequal pay is not an individual misfortune but a social problem with far-reaching effects. In an open letter, Time’s Up—the legal-defense fund launched by three hundred women in entertainment—observed that sexual assault, harassment, and inequity are often linked, especially for “women working in low-wage industries where the lack of financial stability makes them vulnerable to high rates of gender-based violence and exploitation.” You don’t need to be a do-gooding woman—or even a woman, or a do-gooder—to care about the issue. McKinsey & Company’s data found that gender-diverse boards report ninety-one-per-cent-higher earnings and thirty-six-per-cent-higher stock prices than the industry average.
On the last day of January, 2018, Carrie Gracie appeared before a parliamentary committee that, prompted by her resignation letter, had called a hearing to examine the issue of pay at the BBC. The company had released the results of an “equal pay audit,” which found that, for on-air talent, “there does not appear to be any form of systemic discrimination against either men or women.” The pay gap at the BBC was nine per cent. In response to Gracie’s grievance, the corporation acknowledged having “inadvertently underpaid” her since 2014. Fran Unsworth, the director of news and current affairs, pointed to the hiring of Gracie’s male colleague Jon Sopel, that year, as the moment when “things, as we see, get out of line.” Despite an offer of more than a hundred thousand pounds in back pay, Gracie had declined to settle. One of the issues in dispute was whether the China job was as demanding as the one that Sopel was doing in North America. In Gracie’s view, it had been perhaps more difficult, requiring her not only to master a vastly different culture and language but also to deal with police harassment and to evade surveillance. A BBC executive, however, argued that the North American story was more “relentless.”
Gracie has short, silvery-blond hair and a sensible manner. During the hearing, her eyes welled up, uncharacteristically, as she recounted her chagrin at a claim, in the BBC’s response to her grievance, that, upon her departure for China, at the age of fifty-one, she was “in development.” “I am getting emotional, but what I really want to say about this equal-pay problem at the BBC is what it forces the BBC to do, which is to retrofit defenses, justifications of the indefensible,” she said. “They are trying to throw money at me to resolve the problem. This will not resolve my problem. My problem will be resolved by an acknowledgment that my work was of equal value to the men who I served alongside as an international editor.”
At the hearing, four of the BBC’s senior executives took questions, or, rather, largely evaded them with careful corporate politesse. Asked directly about Gracie’s case, Tony Hall asserted that there was “a difference in the scope and scale” of the international-editor jobs:
Chair: You don’t believe that the role of the China editor is of equal value to the role of the North America editor?
Lord Hall: I hate putting the word “value” on someone like Carrie, who is an extraordinary journalist. What I am saying is, under the law, we would need to be able to demonstrate that we are not discriminating by gender but by clear factors. That this job is worth more than that job because there are factors that make that job worth more, in a very clear band. I am sorry this did not come across yesterday to you, but the framework we are putting forward to consult with everybody and we want to consult with everybody is to be able to give, going forward, that clarity of bands and frameworks to the way we pay people. It is really important that people trust that framework and where they sit in the bands.
Now that Gracie had resigned as China editor, she would be returning to her previous position as a presenter on BBC News. The BBC’s slipperiness on equal pay, she pointed out, put its employees in a compromising position. “We are not in the business of producing toothpaste or tires at the BBC,” she said. “Our business is truth. We cannot operate without the truth. If we are not prepared to look at ourselves honestly, how can we be trusted to look at anything else in our reporting honestly?”
The next morning’s Guardian carried an account of the hearing. “The former BBC China editor has broken many big stories in her 30 years at the Beeb, but the two and a half hours in which she took centre stage before the culture select committee may yet prove to be the most influential performance of her career,” it read. “In turn both forensic and passionate, Gracie singlehandedly very publicly exposed the gender pay gap at the BBC. By the end, the broadcaster’s reputation was in tatters.”
The BBC seemed more bumbling than malevolent—why was it offering Gracie more money while also downplaying the value of her work? “I joke that I’m the Lord Altrincham of the BBC,” Gracie said, referring to the writer and peer whose attempts to get the Royal Family to modernize were recently dramatized on “The Crown”—a TV show that had its own pay scandal after it emerged that Claire Foy, playing the Queen, made less than the man who played Prince Philip. (The show’s producer apologized and gave Foy two hundred thousand pounds in back pay.) Historically, the BBC had allowed hiring managers to negotiate contracts as they saw fit, with little coherence and minimal record-keeping. Management characterized many of the fattest deals as “anomalies,” but the anomalies appear to have been awarded consistently to men. Several women, meanwhile, told me of being confronted by a guilt-inducing choice after being told that a raise could mean cuts to their shows’ production budgets. “A complete lack of oversight on pay has been allowed to run away with itself for years and years at the BBC,” Jennifer Millins, of the law firm Mishcon de Reya, who was working on Gracie’s case, told me. “No one ever stopped to think until they were challenged on it. Just because they didn’t mean to do it doesn’t mean it’s not illegal.” (A BBC spokesperson said, “We’ve accepted that historically our pay structure has not always been clear for those in on-air roles, and we’ve been consulting with staff and unions on a new clear and simple pay framework.”)
The BBC had put itself in an impossible position. If it kept denying that pay discrimination existed, it risked damaging its image, alienating the public, and radicalizing its workforce. Yet an admission would open the corporation up to historic levels of liability, under laws that awarded as much as six years’ worth of back pay, including pension restitution. (The Birmingham City Council, having lost a lawsuit for more than a billion pounds, had been forced to sell off the city’s convention center.)
For years, the BBC has been quietly settling discrimination and harassment claims, shielding the deals—and thus the extent of the problem—from scrutiny by requiring nondisclosure agreements. Thirty M.P.s recently demanded a formal inquiry. In a letter to the National Audit Office, obtained by the Independent, they wrote, “In our view the use of public money—collected from our constituents through the license fee—to conduct legal proceedings which pay off and silence victims whilst covering up wrongdoing would be wholly unacceptable and we feel that this matter must be investigated as a matter of urgency.” The BBC says that it has not used N.D.A.s with regard to equal pay since 2015.
In 2009, Miriam O’Reilly successfully sued the BBC for age discrimination after being dropped from the rural-affairs program “Countryfile” at the age of fifty-two. O’Reilly told me that she instantly became a pariah. “I was at a big television event after I won my case, and a very well-known presenter came up to me and put her arms around me, and it was lovely,” she said. “Later that night, I’d been invited to a dinner, and I was being frozen out. I was standing there with a glass of wine in my hand, and I’d try to start a conversation, and they’d just shut me down. I saw the same woman who’d congratulated me that morning and I followed her into the ladies’. ‘Can I just hang with you for a few minutes?’ I said, and she said, ‘I am so sorry, Miriam, but I really can’t be seen with you. My agent said that it could have an effect on my career.’ I honestly didn’t think badly of her for that, because I knew it was real.” O’Reilly continued, “When I heard BBC Women were coming together, I thought, Hooray! At last!”
When Gracie quit, she became the standard-bearer of a movement. More than a hundred and thirty female broadcasters and producers released a statement criticizing their employer for Gracie’s “hugely regrettable” resignation and proclaiming that “up to 200 women that we know of in various grades and roles across the BBC” had made their own pay complaints. Sarah Montague, a host of “Today,” the BBC’s flagship morning radio program, tweeted, “Gracie is brave and brilliant. Not sure what is so hard to understand about #equalpay for equal work. #IstandwithCarrie.” (Montague, who has since moved to a higher-paying program, wrote of being “incandescent with rage” upon learning that she was paid dramatically less than her co-hosts.) The #IStandWithCarrie hashtag started trending, spreading from BBC employees to members of the public to members of Parliament.
BBC Women had begun as a loose confederation of like-minded colleagues. “We just thought, We’ve got to say something about this because it’s just so egregious,” one of the founding members recalled. Now hundreds of women were involved. Many of them were stretched between work and kids, marriages and divorces and aging parents. Without free time to meet in person, they did most of their strategizing in a secret WhatsApp group. “I sat behind Carrie at the select-committee hearing, and I watched people who are my bosses behave in a way that was profoundly disappointing,” the BBC News radio presenter Razia Iqbal told me. “This is about matching everything that we’re told as employees about the values of this institution with the way that they treat women.”
BBC Women was based on the understanding that their chance of achieving reform was directly proportionate to their level of unity. High-status women went on the record so that their more vulnerable colleagues didn’t have to; stars accompanied unknowns to grievance hearings. According to an internal poll by the National Union of Journalists, which has a collective-bargaining agreement at the BBC, eight out of ten women respondents at the company know or believe that they’re being paid less than their male equivalents. Women hoped that reforming the company’s pay structure would also benefit black and Asian colleagues, off-air colleagues, part-time colleagues, and underpaid men. “I think, in a way, it’s almost improved the atmosphere,” Justin Webb, one of the lesser-paid hosts of “Today,” told me, of the equal-pay fight. “I don’t think you’d find many men who, even privately, would say, ‘It’s a load of nonsense, we should be allowed to keep this money, and the women are no good, anyway.’ ”
Colleagues volunteered information about their salaries to one another. “I would have been far too squeamish to ask colleagues about the details of their pay but I didn’t need to,” Sarah Montague wrote. “I was enormously touched by how many colleagues, both men and women, contacted me to share pay and pension details ‘in case it helps.’ ” (One of the best ways to be a male ally in the equal-pay effort is to tell your female peers what you make.) A WhatsApp group focussing on transparency took shape, and in March hundreds of male and female staff members signed an open letter to Tony Hall calling for full pay transparency. The group also encourages bottom-up salary sharing, using secure spreadsheets. Lucy Bailey, a producer on “Newshour,” asked twenty-five colleagues to share how much they earned, and twenty-two agreed. She said, “The spreadsheets aren’t an alternative to full pay transparency, but the process is already helping inform and empower people, and dispelling some of the concerns around salary sharing.” Members of the transparency group went to see Hall wearing lapel badges emblazoned with their salaries.
The women were aware that they risked a backlash, and were sensitive to the position of taxpayers such as one who wrote, on Twitter, “Can’t believe the BBC license payer pays so much £135000 for a man or woman, for such a job, sack them all, spongers.” To counter the possibility of being caricatured as whining divas, the group asked trusted figures such as Clare Balding—whom the Guardian once called an “all-round good egg and nation’s darling”—to appeal to the public’s sense of fairness. “I don’t want to be a professional outraged person,” Balding told me. “I want to change this.” The women framed their complaints as a form of tough love, a concern for an institution that its members cherished. Their tone was cheerily righteous. “I don’t think, in twenty years’ time, that anyone on the other side of the argument will feel proud of themselves,” Jane Garvey, a presenter of “Woman’s Hour,” told me. “We’ll look back and say, How did anybody think it was O.K.? It’s as laughable as taking your children to a public execution.”
Members of the sisterhood, as it was known, corresponded about the particulars of their situations and then crowd-sourced solutions. Some best practices emerged. Martine Croxall, Gracie’s representative at the National Union of Journalists, said, “We advise women to 1. Never go to meetings alone. Always take a colleague or a rep with you. 2. Take copious notes and reflect them back to your manager in writing. 3. In the interest of transparency, share with your colleagues so that you add to the body of evidence and experience that we’re clocking up.” The women helped one another draft sensitive e-mails—one advised another, for example, to insist that her grievance hearing be audio-recorded so that important details weren’t lost. Organizers worked on rotation so that they didn’t burn out. “I suddenly felt like I had an army behind me,” one employee fighting a pay case told me.
As tensions escalated, the BBC bosses seemed unsure how to respond. A memo circulated reminding employees of impartiality rules that prohibited them from reporting on subjects about which they had “expressed a view.” Management banned several female reporters from discussing equal pay on the air. One morning, Gracie, who was subbing on the “Today” program, had to sit quietly as a male colleague reported on her case. An hour later, she was interviewed on “Woman’s Hour” by a non-BBC host who had been brought on, just for the segment, to replace Jane Garvey. The Telegraph, writing of “farcical scenes” at Broadcasting House, the BBC’s London headquarters, noted, “As most BBC women had tweeted in solidarity with Gracie, reporting on the story was effectively left to men.”
The pay controversy made for some awkward workdays. In a January report, the BBC had advised that, in order to correct the “anomalies” in the pay structure, it would likely reduce the pay of some men while raising that of other male and female employees. Just after Gracie’s testimony, someone leaked a recording of John Humphrys, the venerable “Today” co-host, gossiping with Jon Sopel. Humphrys, as the fifth-highest-paid presenter at the BBC, had already taken several voluntary pay cuts. He grumbled, “I could volunteer that I’ve handed over already more than you fucking earn but I’m still left with more than anybody else, and that seems to me to be entirely just.”(Humphrys has since apologized.)
In March, the BBC current-affairs program “Panorama” ran an episode called “Britain’s Equal Pay Scandal.” (The BBC spokesperson said, “We struggle to imagine any other media organization which impartially reports on itself in so much detail.”) It included a bombshell appearance from the tennis champion Martina Navratilova, who revealed that she made fifteen thousand pounds commentating on Wimbledon versus John McEnroe’s hundred and fifty thousand. (The BBC pointed out that Navratilova worked significantly fewer hours than McEnroe and that the two were on different kinds of contracts.) “It’s shocking,” she said. “It’s two weeks of my life, but for the women that work there full time, maybe the discrepancy is not that large, but it adds up over a lifetime.”
On March 8th, International Women’s Day, at 4:22 p.m.—pointedly, nine per cent short of an average working day—BBC employees gathered in front of Broadcasting House. Gracie led a call-and-response chant before hundreds of colleagues of both sexes, who held white placards with two black bars: an equal sign.
Three weeks later, Gracie and I met for breakfast at a café near Broadcasting House. I was expecting the indestructible dynamo of her public appearances, but she seemed worn down. She said that she wasn’t exercising or sleeping very well. Her appeal was dragging on, and managing it had become so onerous that it was the only thing she had time to do other than work. “It’s definitely worse than breast cancer,” she told me later. “The stress comes from all the judgment calls along the way.” We talked about her case before she downed a last coffee and said that she needed to go. She was heading straight to a morning shift at the News Channel. “I try not to let myself think about it too much,” she said. “I’m doing a complicated full-time job, and it’s hard when you can’t help feeling it would be convenient for some people if I tripped up.”
Equal pay for equal work has been the law for decades, but it remains difficult to obtain. As the economist Linda Babcock and the writer Sara Laschever explain, in their book “Women Don’t Ask,” women are less likely than men to negotiate for higher salaries and other benefits. At Carnegie Mellon University, for example, ninety-three per cent of female M.B.A. students accepted an initial salary offer, while only forty-three per cent of men did. Women incur heavy losses for their tendency to avoid negotiation. It is estimated that, over the course of her career, an average woman loses a total of somewhere between half a million and a million and a half dollars.
Even when women do make it to the bargaining table, they often fare poorly. In “What Works: Gender Equality by Design,” the behavioral economist Iris Bohnet examines data from a group of Swedish job seekers, among whom women ended up with lower salaries than their equally qualified male peers. “Not only did employers counter women’s already lower demands with stingier counter-offers, they responded less positively when women tried to self-promote,” she writes. “Women, it turns out, cannot even exercise the same strategies for advancement that men benefit from.” When women act more like men, she suggests, they are often punished for it. Lean in, and you might get pushed even further back.
Bohnet recommends that organizations explicitly invite women to negotiate, and train managers to counteract their biases. She points to simple fixes—with the introduction of blind auditions, orchestras increased the likelihood that a female musician would make it past the first round by fifty per cent. To optimize results, women should use inclusive language—“we” instead of “I”—and “lean in safely,” by asking someone else to negotiate on their behalf. Bohnet writes, “I am always uneasy when sharing these findings with my female students, but I also remind myself that just telling them to be patient and wait until we have fixed the system is an even worse answer.”
New laws are pushing employers to examine their pay structures. Last year, the U.K. began requiring organizations with more than two hundred and fifty employees to make an annual report of four measures: gender pay gap in hourly pay, gender pay gap in bonus pay, percentage of men and women receiving bonuses, and proportion of men and women in each quartile of the pay scale. (Gender-pay-gap figures can easily be manipulated, but the simplicity and specificity of the reporting requirements give employers fewer places to hide unflattering data.) The legislation is meant to nudge companies to improve their practices by increasing public scrutiny, and to encourage women to negotiate better salaries by giving them a sense of where they stand relative to their co-workers. “I do think this is the next frontier, disclosure of salaries,” Samuel Estreicher, the director of N.Y.U.’s Center for Labor and Employment Law, told me. “How do you empower workers to get into this issue without knowing what their colleagues in comparable circumstances are being paid?” Harriet Harman, an M.P. who helped to design the law, told me, “I felt that the really key thing was transparency, and that everybody should be able to see it, because we were in a situation where everybody was saying, ‘Oh, women are worth just as much as men. Unequal pay is a terrible thing, but it doesn’t happen here.’ ”
The reports, which were due at the beginning of April, generated weeks of headlines. (Condé Nast Britain, the U.K. arm of this magazine’s parent company, had the largest mean gender pay gap in the media industry, which the company attributed to the fact that many of its top positions are held by men. “We recognise that we need to reduce the gap in the upper quartile,” the company said.) “We expected the results to make for uncomfortable reading and they do,” the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, wrote in an opinion piece. Some of the figures were unsurprising (finance and construction reported the biggest gaps), while others were unexpected (a women’s-underwear firm had the fourth-biggest gap in the country, at 75.7 per cent). EasyJet’s newly appointed C.E.O., disclosing a 51.7-per-cent mean pay gap and speaking of a “personal commitment” to equality, announced that he was taking a voluntary pay cut of thirty-four thousand pounds, to put his salary in line with that of his female predecessor.
Iceland is taking an even more aggressive approach. Despite being the world’s most gender-equal country, according to the World Economic Forum, it had a pay gap in 2017 of 9.9 per cent. Last year, its legislature—where women held forty-eight per cent of the seats—passed a law mandating daily fines for any workplace of more than twenty-five people that does not obtain an equal-pay certification from the government in the next four years. The law is innovative because it makes employers actively justify their policies, rather than relying on regulators to seek out violations. It doesn’t change the law so much as enforce it. “The gender gap won’t close by itself,” Rósa Guðrún Erlingsdóttir, of the equality unit at Iceland’s welfare ministry, has said.
While other countries make headway, the United States is stagnating. Under the Obama Administration, Congress passed several pieces of landmark legislation, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, of 2009, which dramatically extended the statute of limitations for equal-pay lawsuits. (Ledbetter, a former production supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant, discovered that she was being underpaid when a colleague slipped her an anonymous note.) However, the Trump Administration has repealed other important Obama-era measures, including a rule requiring large employers to submit gender-pay data to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, arguing that it raised privacy concerns and would generate too much paperwork. “Ultimately, while I believe the intention was good and agree that pay transparency is important, the proposed policy would not yield the intended results,” Ivanka Trump said.
As with immigration policy, states and cities are making progress where the federal government declines to. In Massachusetts, Delaware, and California, and in cities such as New York and Philadelphia, it is now illegal to ask a job candidate about his or her salary history, a practice that particularly disadvantages women. Boston recently launched a public-private partnership that has so far trained seven thousand women in salary negotiation and persuaded a hundred and fourteen companies to try to close their pay gaps. Last week, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s top flute player, Elizabeth Rowe, filed suit under Massachusetts’s newly strengthened equal-pay statutes. Rowe alleges that she received just seventy-five per cent of the salary of her most comparable colleague, the orchestra’s principal oboe player. “I consider Elizabeth to be my peer and equal, at least as worthy of the compensation that I receive as I am,” the oboe player told the Boston Globe.
The idea behind these measures is to make employers realize that equal pay is good business. In a 2016 survey conducted by the A.F.L.-C.I.O., women named equal pay as the single most important workplace issue. With women making up forty-seven per cent of the American workforce, the retention of female talent is a significant competitive advantage. “Equal pay is a win for the company, its employees, and its investors,” Natasha Lamb, a managing partner at the sustainable-investment firm Arjuna Capital, told me. In a report, Lamb wrote that “a host of research illustrates the business case for Equal Pay,” citing evidence that it led to better risk management, higher profit margins and stock prices, and more innovation.
Since 2015, Lamb has been raising the issue at the annual general meetings of some of America’s biggest employers. Out of twenty-three companies she has targeted, twenty-one—including Apple, Starbucks, Nike, and Citigroup—have agreed to analyze their gender pay data and attempt to eliminate discrepancies. “There’s a domino effect,” Lamb said. “When you have one company that takes the lead, other companies follow.” Word gets around about workplaces that are making an effort, and companies that resist run the risk of being perceived as industry laggards. Facebook is one of the two companies that have dismissed Lamb’s proposals. (The other is Walmart, which is facing a class-action lawsuit over equal pay.) In May, at Facebook’s annual meeting, Lamb stood up and asked why the company was failing to respond to investor concerns about equal pay. She was told to speak with Elliot Schrage, the company’s vice-president of communications, after the meeting. As Lamb wrote in the Financial Times, “He told me that the company was not engaging with me because I’m ‘not nice.’ ” (Schrage later apologized, and Facebook has begun to implement some changes.)
According to Claudia Goldin, the economist, a “grand convergence” in men’s and women’s wages is entirely possible. The single most important factor is reforming workplaces so that flexibility—which fewer women than men possess—isn’t so well remunerated. Goldin argues that such reform is less a question of feasibility than of collective desire. “Men need to want what women want, and then employers will respond,” she told me. As she has written, “This isn’t only a woman’s problem, and it isn’t a zero-sum game.”
“Perhaps Carrie Gracie should be made chair of the BBC; perhaps she should be given a role specifically to bring about change in the organization,” Chris Bryant, an M.P., said in January, during a parliamentary debate. But, ten months in, Gracie was still awaiting the result of her appeal. The pressure was getting to her. “I hear my courtroom voice in my head,” she told me. “I’m so bored with my own voice.” At the end of May, as the deadline for her outcome passed without a resolution, she went on leave from the BBC. She said, “It would be uncomfortable enough for me to be in a lift with some of these people.”
I went to visit her one morning in early June, in Richmond, a pastoral suburb of London. Gracie welcomed me into the semidetached house she shares with her kids. Inside, in her living room, it was neat and cool. Ladles hung from a pegboard in the adjacent kitchen. The windows were open to a little patio, where the sound of planes flying out of Heathrow mingled with that of trickling water, from a rock garden that she had built. I was surprised to find few of the self-congratulatory souvenirs that a life of foreign correspondence usually imposes on a person’s habitat. The only evidence of Gracie’s time in China was some books and a pair of scrolls that hung on an orange wall. “I picked them up at a flea market,” she said.
She had a table stacked with letters and e-mails that she had received during her pay battle. There were almost eight hundred, including three hundred from colleagues at the BBC, many of whom she’d never met. They came from Myanmar, Germany, Australia, America. Forty per cent were from men. “Good luck . . . you are quite right,” one of them read. “As a Stone Age bloke, I find short lists stashed for gender equality abhorrent. However, having got the job on merit, one should be paid for it. Rgds dodgy old bugger Bill.”
Over the weekend, Jon Sopel had been asked about Gracie’s case on a BBC radio program. “Fair play to her,” he said. “She wanted a pay rise.”
“That’s so not what I wanted,” Gracie said. She was sitting on the couch with her legs tucked up underneath her and her dog, Django, on her lap. “I wanted equal pay.”
I asked whether she was tempted by the back pay she was owed. “I’m as susceptible as the next person to start thinking about, What couldn’t I do with the money?” she said. “But I decided very early on that it was a price worth paying to renounce it.”
Eventually, she popped up from the couch and said, “Let’s go walk the dog!”
We rambled around wet fields and bosky paths that smelled of jasmine. Gracie spoke fondly about her years at the BBC. “I still believe in it,” she said. I asked if she wanted to continue her career there. “I will not ever get a big flagship program now,” she said. “You can’t be seen to be rewarded for the trouble you’ve caused.” Her continued investment in the company, after everything she’d been through, seemed to reflect a particular kind of trauma. It reminded me of a passage from Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir, “Grace and Grit,” in which she realizes that she has been set up for failure in her work checking Hummer tires. “I was done stuffing down my disappointment and swallowing my anger, throwing myself harder into my work like a good little hedgehog, thinking that if I just worked longer and smarter, my merit would speak for itself. It hadn’t and it wouldn’t. It had taken me too long to see what had been so transparent for so many years. . . . I had stuck it out so long, to the detriment of myself and my family, in part because I was waiting for acceptance.”
According to BBC Women, by July more than a thousand women had asked the corporation to look at their pay. (The BBC said that the number was significantly lower.) Some were in the early stage of discussions; some were taking settlements and moving on; others were holding out to see if anyone would achieve what one of the founding members of BBC Women described to me as “the holy grail”—pay parity, full pension restitution, and up to six years’ back pay. “They’re still plucking numbers out of thin air,” the woman said. “There’s little sign that they’re systematically putting women’s pay right in accordance with the law.”
Gracie was in a standoff with the company, and it looked like there might be a lawsuit. Then she and Tony Hall began to talk directly. On June 29th, they released a joint statement. “The BBC acknowledges that Carrie was told she would be paid in line with the North America Editor,” it read. “The BBC is committed to the principle of equal pay and acting in accordance with our values. The BBC acknowledges the specific circumstances relating to Carrie’s appointment, apologises for underpaying Carrie, and has now put this right.”
Just before noon that day, Gracie appeared in front of Broadcasting House and, flanked by Martine Croxall and Razia Iqbal, made a short statement to the press. “The BBC has been my work family for thirty years, and I want it to be the best,” she said. “Sometimes families feel the need to shout at each other, but it’s always a relief when you can stop shouting.” She added, “Today at the BBCI can say I’m equal, and I would like women in workplaces up and down this country to be able to say the same.”
The next week, the BBC released an update on its pay gap, which, it said, was down from 9.3 to 7.6 per cent. In mid-July, it published a new high-earners list, which included more women than the year before, although none were among the corporation’s top twelve. It also published a report on women at the BBC that took into account more than five thousand comments and suggested three areas of focus for the company: improving recruitment, increasing training for managers, and doing “all we can to embed flexible working requests in our culture.”
The day after the news of the settlement broke, I e-mailed Gracie to ask what she was doing. “Household chores. V. grounding,” she wrote. She plans to take six months of unpaid leave to write and speak, both about China and about equal pay. She is donating the money—the “holy grail” settlement, likely to be more than four hundred thousand dollars—to the Fawcett Society, a charity established in 1866 by suffragettes, with the stipulation that it be used to provide legal assistance to low-paid women and to fund strategic litigation.
Gracie’s gift is part of a growing bid to fix the system, rather than just hope that a few determined women might be able to beat it, here and there, some of the time. One of the major revelations of the reckonings of the past year is that isolation is not only a consequence of inequality but also a root cause. Increasingly, the most effective fights, like Carrie Gracie’s, owe their success to coming together and sharing—information, risk, the emotional burden of public scrutiny and internal backlash. “The reason the BBC thought they could get away with it is that they hadn’t factored in the multiplier effect of solidarity,” Gracie told me. “If you tell me I’m rubbish, I might believe you, but if you tell me she’s rubbish I know it’s not true.” ♦