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13 October 2017

Should the BBC still close the presenter pay gap if lower-ranking staff suffer?

The Daily Mail reports that paying female presenters more means cutting budgets elsewhere.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

You can trust the Daily Mail to be the champion of the downtrodden worker, fearlessly challenging privilege wherever it may be found. Today, it’s the turn of lower-paid staff on the BBC’s Today programme to benefit from the paper’s razor-sharp analysis of injustice.

Why, it is asked, should “rank-and-file” workers bear the cost of vast pay increases to female presenters, intended to “close the show’s gender pay gap”? Since reducing the pay of male presenters such as John Humphrys and Nick Robinson is apparently unthinkable, shouldn’t we be asking whether an “outrageous growth” in pay for their female peers is at all wise?

After all, while sexism isn’t particularly pleasant, partial equality isn’t equality at all. When the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, why worry about whether women at the top are receiving less than their male counterparts? You can make a tiny minority of women as overpaid as a tiny minority of men – but doesn’t that still leave the most basic injustice intact?

While I can’t help doubting the Mail’s true motives in reporting on this, I’d say they have the beginnings of a feminist point. Feminism is not just concerned with abolishing the idea that women are inferior to men; it’s a political project that aims to end the abuse and exploitation justified by this supposed inferiority.

One half of the human race is treated as a resource for the other half to use and discard. Our goal should not be to ensure more women get to be exploiters, more men exploited. It should be to end exploitation full stop.

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And yet there’s a problem when this gets used – as it so often is, by both left and right – as an excuse for stasis. Yes, we are told, denying someone equal pay for equal work because they are female is unfair, but there are worse things in life. What about not getting paid at all? (A question usually posed by those blissfully unaware of the relationship between gender and unpaid work.)

We’re left with a variation on “what about female genital mutilation?” – that moment when someone who doesn’t actually do anything to end one problem decides to suggest it is selfish to care about anything else. You can’t really be concerned about pay injustice if you think it’s fine for more than six million UK jobs to pay less than the voluntary living wage. By the same token, though, you can’t be all that committed to ending inequality if you demand that all those paid less because of their sex quietly wait their turn.

When thousands of female workers for Birmingham City Council won the right to back pay for all the years during which they were paid less than their male counterparts, there were some who lamented these women’s inability to see the bigger picture. Council leader Sir Albert Bore complained that the council had been left in a “horrendous position financially” (unlike, say, a woman who can’t afford to leave her abusive partner or buy new shoes for her child because she happens to clean nursing homes rather than streets).

Whether we’re dealing with overpaid radio presenters or underpaid cleaners, the message is the same: women, you must take one for the team. If we pay you more, someone else loses out and no, it can’t ever be managed in a way that brings about fairness for all. That’s much too difficult.

Curiously, the “it’s all too complicated” argument is rarely used by the left to suggest there’s no point in even trying to have a politics that promotes wealth redistribution. It’s only where women are concerned that “suck it up” is recast as “strategic thinking”.

The Daily Mail is not known for consistency as far as gender or economics is concerned. Unable to resist the opportunity to have a dig at both the BBC and the very idea of pay equality, the paper is prepared to allow that paying vast sums to those at the top does have a negative impact on everyone else. The wealth doesn’t magically trickle down.

The logical conclusions to this – first, that solving inequality between men and women can’t be women’s work, and second, that overpaying one group at the expense of another is quite obviously unjustifiable – may be left unsaid, but they’re there for the taking.

Maybe wealthy women who ask for more are greedy. Or maybe, like women from all walks of life, they’re sick of the humiliation that comes with being told nothing you do will ever render you as valuable as your be-penised counterparts.

Either way, what we’re seeing is an admission that top-heavy pay structures are damaging. The solution to this isn’t slapping on a “men only” sign; it’s taking the inherently feminist idea of radical redistribution and running with it.

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