The BBC’s equal pay row shows the enormity of the challenge we face

9 Jan 2018 By Dean Royles

Closing the gender pay gap will take more than changes to organisational policies – it’s a societal challenge too

Last weekend, BBC China correspondent Carrie Gracie resigned her post, citing pay equality with male colleagues. This was accompanied by a powerful letter addressed to the BBC’s audience, which highlighted the difference between pay equality and the gender pay gap.

She described her concern and the reasoning for her decision to resign: because men earn more in the same jobs or jobs of equal value. The letter concludes that it is a century since women first won the right to vote in Britain and asks to make this year the one that equal pay is won.

However, despite the fact that her resignation made it clear that her issue was with equal pay, a number of media outlets described her resignation as a ‘gender pay row’, including the BBC (which later changed the headline). It was not a gender pay row, it was an equal pay row, which is a very different thing. 

I know many people may see this as a pedantic HR point, but it’s not. There is an important distinction between pay equality and the gender pay gap, and if we don’t get our understanding right we will never solve the problem of the gender pay gap. It is entirely possible for an organisation to have absolute pay equality and still have a significant gender pay gap.

The gender pay gap is the difference between the average earnings of all women in an organisation compared to the average earnings of all the men. Equal pay is about whether a man and a woman doing the same (or comparable) job earn the same. Not complying with equal pay legislation is illegal. Having a gender pay gap (which most organisations will have) is not. That doesn’t make it right – far from it – but the solutions to each problem are different.

All organisations have to report their gender pay gap by the end of March 2018. Many NHS organisations will have a significant gender pay gap. This is largely because women in the NHS dominate lower-paid roles such as catering assistant, health care support worker, domestic assistant and other clinical support staff. So although in higher-paid medical and senior roles there is a more even split of men and women (something the NHS should be rightly proud of), the overall average pay for women is significantly less.

Many NHS organisations, for example, will report gender pay gaps in excess of 20 per cent. (Interestingly, although there is no legal requirement to report one, these organisations are also likely to have a positive BME pay gap – where BME staff learn on average more than non-BME staff – which is largely down to the high number of BME staff in medical positions.)

Confusing the gender pay gap with equal pay is not just a pedantic point. Many organisations can do a lot to reduce the pay gap, but just as importantly there is a challenge for government and society too. Why are caring roles, some of the most challenging in our society, still lower paid? Why do women still dominate these roles? What can society do to value these jobs more and to encourage more men to take caring and support roles? These are big issues requiring big policy decisions.

The publication of gender pay gaps should be a challenge to organisations to do more in respect of providing flexible working and supporting women to progress their careers faster, but we will miss a huge opportunity in addressing inherent discrimination in our society if we don’t take the opportunity to challenge government and policy, as well as influence manifesto commitments.

Equal pay legislation was passed in the 1970s and still organisations discriminate. We can’t be as complacent as a society with the gender pay gap.

Dean Royles is director of human resources and organisational development at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust

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