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Think Samira Ahmed’s pay case is depressing? Tell a woman what you earn

The details of Ahmed's equal pay case against the BBC make for uncomfortable reading. But it's still notable that she knew enough to bring a case

By Stephanie Boland  

Samira Ahmed arrives at the Central London Employment Tribunal, Victory House, London. Photo: PA

There are lots of numbers in the Samira Ahmed case. There’s the £700,000 she argued she was owed in back pay, because of the £2560 difference in her per-episode rate (£440) and the per-episode rate of her chosen pay comparator, presenter Jeremy Vine (£3000). There’s the 800,000 viewers that Ahmed’s union, the National Union of Journalists, found watch Vine’s Point of View and the 1.5-9m that tune in to Newswatch, the BBC One program Ahmed presents. There’s even the “one wig and one hat” that the tribunal found Vine had worn in the course of his job—a rebuttal to the BBC’s claim that while she was a news journalist, he was a light entertainment presenter who would “often dress up for small visual gags.”

Here are two more numbers: 11,609, the number of employers whose pay reporting you can search on the government’s gender pay gap website. And 1,326,000: the rough number of private sector employers in the UK that have fewer than 250 employees and thus do not have to report.

Of course, the gender pay gap is not solely down to sex discrimination—although some other factors, including the impact of parenthood on men’s and women’s salaries, can be affected by company policy. But it is still striking that Ahmed’s successful case began with reading a number, too: the amount her male colleague earned. (For a woman to claim equal pay, she must first be able to point to a man carrying out equal work: a “pay comparator.”) After the BBC revealed that two-thirds of its highest-paid stars were men, with the Equality and Human Rights Commission subsequently launching an investigation into the broadcaster, staff began agitating for greater pay transparency, leading to what one anonymous employee described as the “genie [coming] out of the bottle.”

There is no doubt that Ahmed’s case was unpleasant. While details about wigs and hats are funny, the picking apart of two colleague’s relative contributions—down to whether his eyerolls were scripted or not, and what percentage of the public knew the name “Samira Ahmed” compared to the name “Jeremy Vine”—makes for an uncomfortable read. Some women reading the reports may wonder if they would want to endure such a process; Ahmed’s BBC colleague, Carrie Gracie, has shared that she suffered from depression during her long pay battle with the broadcaster, which she won in June 2018. Many will feel that neither woman should have had to undergo such a lengthy battle to receive the money they deserved. But at least they both could.

In a country where the average person is more comfortable talking about their sex life than their salary, perhaps it is not surprising that the majority of Britons feel uncomfortable asking colleagues what they earn or sharing their own pay details. But as Fawcett Society chief executive Sam Smethers recently argued, “pay discrimination is able to thrive … because of a culture of pay secrecy.” Whether the potential discrimination is based on gender, race, sexuality or other characteristics, Melanie Simms, a professor of work and employment at Glasgow University, has said disclosing your salary is one of the “most subversive acts” an employee can do. 

Up and down the country, there will be women sat in offices reading the reports of Ahmed’s case and wondering whether sex discrimination might exist in their workplaces, too: eyeing up the colleague who always seems to buy a fancy lunch, or even starting to roll two job titles around in their mind, wondering if cleaning might be equal to refuse collection, marketing to finance. 

Some of them will be able to dig up reports and find out what their employer thinks. Others will know nothing, unless their male colleagues talk; which they must, if they are at any one of some 1,338,000 companies and the idea of sex discrimination bothers them at all. No matter how many literal or figurative hats you wear at work, it’s impossible to begin the process of addressing unequal pay if you have no idea it exists.

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