Carrie Gracie: My BBC equal pay dispute was nothing out of the ordinary - women all over are being undervalued and underpaid

In her book, Equal, journalist Carrie Gracie sets out her dispute with the BBC over equal pay. She tells Laura Reid about her experienced ahead of an appearance in Ilkley.

The silver pendant that journalist Carrie Gracie wears each day is a precious reminder of those who stood by her side in her gruelling and high-profile battle with the BBC over equal pay.

Carrie Gracie is appearing as part of Ilkley Literature Festival. Photo: Fran Monks

Carrie Gracie is appearing as part of Ilkley Literature Festival. Photo: Fran Monks

It is engraved with the words #ISTANDWITHCARRIE, the hashtag used by men and women to show their support when she quit her post as BBC China Editor six months after enforced disclosures revealed large gaps in pay between top men and women who were working for the broadcaster.

“It’s a very precious thing to me,” Gracie, 57, reflects. The necklace was presented to her by a collective of supportive colleagues known as BBC Women during her yearlong dispute. “I could not have done this without the solidarity that the group showed.”

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Gracie recounts her experience in her new book Equal, published last month. When the dispute was resolved, Gracie says she felt “a sense of survivor guilt” and armed with messages of frustration and despair from women all over the UK, she was driven write to highlight not only her own journey, but wider issues around the gender pay gap and the social and economic forces driving inequality in pay in workplaces across the country.

Gracie after her open letter as she left her BBC China Editor post in January last year. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Gracie after her open letter as she left her BBC China Editor post in January last year. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

“It’s too easy for people to say a gender pay gap (the average difference between hourly wages for men and women) is perfectly legitimate because of the choices women make,” says Gracie, who will appear at Ilkley Literature Festival on Sunday.

“The book is intended to say you need to think harder about that because choices women make is just one part of the explanation for the gender pay gap and another big part, in my view, is pay discrimination.”

It is nearly 50 years since the 1970 Equal Pay Act was introduced to prevent discrimination in employment conditions. It enshrines the right to pay equality where a man and woman are doing work rated as equivalent or work of an equal value.

In July 2017, four days after the BBC published a list of the names of all its employees earning more than £150,000 year for the first time - a move it was compelled to do under the terms of its new Royal Charter - Gracie was one of 44 of the BBC’s most senior on-air women that signed a letter to its director-general alleging that women at the corporation were being paid less than men for the same work.

Around two thirds of those on the list were male and Gracie said she was dismayed to find the BBC’s two male international editors earned “at least 50 per cent more” than its two female counterparts.

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“Resistant. Avoidant. Numb,” Gracie writes of her feelings when news of the list broke. “Pay is about how others value us,” she adds. “And if we suddenly discover they value us much less than we thought, it feels like a betrayal.”

On December 6 that year, Gracie gave a month’s notice and resigned as China Editor to return to her former post in the BBC TV newsroom. In an open letter as she publicly left in January 2018, Gracie accused the BBC of a “secretive and illegal pay culture”. The broadcaster responded saying there was “no systemic discrimination against women”.

Gracie said she believed she had secured pay parity with men in equivalent roles when she accepted the China Editor job and since the disclosures, had told her bosses the only acceptable resolution would be for all international editors to be paid the same amount.

“I made clear I wasn’t seeking a pay rise, just equal pay,” she wrote. “Instead the BBC offered me a big pay rise which remained far short of equality.”

In June last year, the dispute was resolved. The BBC acknowledged Gracie was told she would be paid in line with the North America Editor when she took the role of China Editor, apologised for “underpaying” her and said it had “put this right”.

For Gracie it was a time of immense relief. The dispute had taken its toll and she describes, at times, feeling an “overwhelming sense of powerlessness”. For nearly a year, she says her life was put on hold and eventually, she was signed off work as she stopped sleeping and struggled with depression.

“My personality is that I’m usually quite calm and can get on with life if I know what I should do,” Gracie reflects. “But if I’m faced with dilemmas that I really can’t work out how to handle, I find that quite paralysing.”

As a breast cancer survivor, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t faced difficult experiences in life. “I thought of myself as being quite a resilient person and I was shocked by how challenged I was by the experience of this dispute,” she reflects.

“I was quite calm in facing my breast cancer and I think the reason why I found the equal pay fight much harder for me was the issue of never knowing what I should be doing with it and always feeling like I couldn’t win.

"With my cancer, I had good doctors, my prognosis was positive, I had to do what they said and I was giving myself a good chance of recovery...and yet with the equal pay fight, it was like everything in your body and brain was saying get away from this, this is going to crush you. To carry on day after day fighting that fight, which you know is crushing you, feels like a very self-punishing thing to do.”

Many women have contacted Gracie about their own pay experiences or to say thank you to her for taking on her dispute so publicly. “The thing about my case is that it is so ordinary,” she says. “It’s happening everywhere.

"The only thing that was unusual is that I spoke up loudly about it and had a platform on which to do that, so my voice was amplified. But actually, the fact that I was undervalued and underpaid is commonplace and so every time a woman says you spoke for me, I feel both moved and sad.”

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Gracie donated the money she received in the resolution to gender equality charity the Fawcett Society to help fund a legal advice service for people facing pay discrimination. “I felt strongly that women don’t have enough support when they go into these fights to it was the least I could do,” she says.

Without the BBC Women community sharing information and offering support and laughter, for Gracie, the emotional strain of the dispute would have been far greater.

She hopes her book encourages greater transparency around pay, emboldens women to stand up for the value of their work and shows how men and employers can help make change.

“If my case has made people think, then it was worth it,” she says. “It’s worth it to me if it has helped other people and by that I mean not just women, but men and employers.”

“I couldn’t have worked harder as BBC China Editor and delivered more than I worked and delivered,” she adds. “I gave that job my absolute all and if that wasn’t equal to a man, then I was never going to be. If I can look back when I’m 80 and say I stood up for myself and insisted that my work was equal and that I won, then I think it’s worth it for me too.”

In a statement, a BBC spokesperson said: “We resolved Carrie’s pay issue some time ago and the BBC is already a very different place to what it was a few years ago. We’ve said we want to lead the way on equality and have addressed the vast majority of pay queries raised with us, we have also put a new pay structure in place and significantly closed the gender pay gap.”

In March, the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into whether BBC staff experienced unlawful pay discrimination from January 2016. It said it suspected some women had not received equal pay for equal work. The BBC said it had gone through a period of significant reform and was confident it could provide assurance on equal pay.

Carrie Gracie is at Ilkley Literature Festival on October 13.