Employers must ensure they have clear and transparent processes for setting rates of pay, experts have warned following presenter Samira Ahmed’s successful equal pay claim against the BBC.
The London Central Employment Tribunal ruled on Friday 10 January that Ahmed’s role was similar to or the same as fellow BBC presenter Jeremy Vine’s, and the BBC had failed to “rebut the presumption of sex discrimination that arose” because of this.
The tribunal said the BBC found defending its position difficult because “it did not (and to some extent still does not) have a transparent and consistent process for evaluating and determining pay for its on-air talent”.
“It [the BBC] has no records (or if it has them it has not produced them) of how the pay levels for the claimant and Jeremy Vine were determined,” the ruling stated.
Rebecca Berry, senior associate at law firm Stevens & Bolton, said the case showed employers needed to adopt clear processes for determining pay, and ensure all decisions were recorded “to reduce the risk of following in the BBC’s footsteps”.
Carolyn Brown, employment lawyer and head of client legal services at RSM, echoed Berry’s warning. “Businesses in sectors with wide gender pay gaps should already be auditing their salary structures on a role-by-role basis to ensure they have sufficient transparency,” she said.
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The success of a high-profile case such as this might encourage other employees to take such issues to tribunal, experts warned. Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said the ruling “sends a clear message to every woman out there who has the courage to challenge discrimination. If you fight, you can win.” She added it was a "damning judgment for the BBC”.
“Across the country there are probably thousands of women who are not being paid the same as men for the same work or work of equal value,” said Wanda Wyporska, executive director of the Equality Trust. “[This is] because of discrimination, but also because of inherently unfair pay structures that import 'market rates', which may already be discriminatory.”
However, although more employees might be willing to take legal action, Charlie Thompson, senior associate in the employment team at Harbottle & Lewis, emphasised this ruling did not reflect a change in the law. “It remains difficult to show that a disparity in pay amounts to discrimination,” he said.
Ahmed took the BBC to an employment tribunal last year, claiming she had faced gender pay discrimination in her role presenting audience feedback show Newswatch. She claimed she was owed £700,000 in back pay because she carried out a similar role to Vine in his capacity as presenter of Points of View.
Vine was paid £3,000 per episode of Points of View, which he presented between 2008 and 2018. Ahmed, meanwhile, was paid £440 per episode of Newswatch, which she began presenting in 2012.
The BBC argued the discrepancy in pay was down to Points of View and Newswatch being “very different” programmes, the former being entertainment while the latter strictly current affairs. They also said “specific market pressures” necessitated Vine’s higher salary.
While both shows were 15 minutes long and featured audience feedback and a presenter reading from an autocue, the BBC argued Vine’s role as presenter of a factual entertainment programme, which included humour, required a “glint in the eye”, for which extra skill and experience was necessary.
However, the tribunal rejected this defence, ruling the roles were in fact “virtually the same” and rejecting the claim that presenting Points of View required extra skill. The judgment noted that "the attempts at humour came from the script. Jeremy Vine read the script from the autocue. He read it in the tone in which it was written. If it told him to roll his eyes he did. It did not require any particular skill or experience to do that."
Ahmed was one of 121 women to raise a collective equal pay grievance against the BBC, led by the NUJ. The union urged the BBC to resolve the other outstanding cases as quickly as possible. It has not yet been announced what remuneration Ahmed will receive in light of the ruling.
A BBC spokesperson said: “We have always believed that the pay of Samira and Jeremy Vine was not determined by their gender. Presenters – female as well as male – had always been paid more on Points of View than [on] Newswatch.
"We’re sorry the tribunal didn’t think the BBC provided enough evidence about specific decisions – we weren’t able to call people who made decisions as far back as 2008 and have long since left the BBC.” The corporation added it wanted to “work together with Samira to move on in a positive way”.
In a statement, Ahmed said she was glad the issue had been resolved and was “looking forward to continuing to do [her] job”.