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11 September 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:40am

Carrie Gracie on her battle for equal pay at the BBC: “Women are not winning this fight”

The news broadcaster and former China editor on being paid less than her male equivalents at the BBC – and why the problem persists.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On 8 January 2018, BBC China editor Carrie Gracie announced her resignation in an open letter to the media. That same morning, she was also standing in as a presenter on Radio 4’s Today programme, the broadcaster’s flagship news show.

Climbing into a taxi at 3.30am and making her way to the studio, she flicked through the newspapers stacked up on the back seat and saw her own face staring back at her.

Gracie was quitting her role over wages, accusing her employer of “breaking equality law” by paying her equivalent male international editors higher salaries. As is often the way with the BBC, the scandal revealed a powerful combination of hypocrisy, cock-ups and self-flagellation.

Having been implored “on bended knee”, she says, by the director of news James Harding to take the role of China editor in 2013, Gracie’s condition for accepting the position – one of the most important and challenging in news broadcasting – was for equal pay with the North America editor. Her job description described them as “on a par”.

Only four years later, at the age of 55, did Gracie discover that she was being paid nearly half as much, when new transparency rules revealed the public broadcaster’s highest earners. Jeremy Bowen, the Middle East editor, was paid £150,000-£199,000, and Jon Sopel, the North America editor, £200,000-£249,000. Gracie’s salary was £134,000.

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“My story is commonplace,” she tells me, when we meet for lunch close to New Broadcasting House in central London, where she works as a BBC News presenter.

“The story that I was unequally paid, that I was undervalued as a woman, that I was in the dark about that for most of my working life, and then found out by accident. All that journey is a commonplace journey.”

Gracie has been researching the prevalence of unequal pay for her book, Equal: A Story of Women, Men & Money, a memoir-cum-manual recounting her own experiences and collating advice for other women.

“Pay discrimination is the gender pay gap’s dirty secret,” she writes. What employers often dismiss, and women may not realise, is that it is not just regressive but illegal, breaking the Equality Act, which will be 50 years old next year.

Still, no amount of law, hard evidence about unconscious bias, or the self-evident equivalence of Gracie’s work as an international news editor to that of Sopel convinced the BBC to address the issue for at least a year.

Gracie was dragged through humiliating grievance hearings (as a veteran BBC journalist, she was stunned at their refusal to record them), told she was paid less because she was in “development” (she had served as China correspondent and Beijing bureau chief, and had won the Peabody prize and an Emmy) and nearly left the BBC altogether.

There was “harrumphing” by veteran presenter John Humphrys in the Today studio when he encountered her on the morning when news of her resignation broke. Later, his mockery of her pay struggle in a conversation with Sopel was leaked. Yet Gracie remains tight-lipped about her colleagues. (“Sorry,” she says, in a note of sympathy for a fellow journalist.)

After a bruising year, Gracie finally won adequate back-pay and a public apology from the BBC. She donated the money to the Fawcett Society, a gender equality charity, to set up a fund for women seeking pay discrimination advice.

During her “war of attrition”, Gracie struggled to sleep, became depressed and was signed off work. She even describes her equal pay battle as worse than breast cancer, which she had in 2011. “When I had breast cancer, I had a good prognosis and doctors trying to save my life,” she says. “My experience of unequal pay was that I had a bad prognosis and people who I didn’t feel were keen to cure the problem.”

She appears relieved to be covering the news agenda again rather than setting it. Smartly dressed in a purple shirt and white gem earrings, with her light crop of hair neatly in place, Gracie is due on air three hours earlier than expected – Boris Johnson has just announced his plan to prorogue parliament.

Of the BBC’s 30 highest earners, 11 are women – and only three of them are in the top ten. Nick Robinson and John Humphrys are paid more than their Today programme counterparts Mishal Husain and Martha Kearney.

“There are a lot of things about BBC pay that I still think need a lot of work,” Gracie says. “And to be honest, the pay at the top is not my primary concern. I’ve got much more serious worries about the pay down the pay structure for those who are not high-profile stars.”

Indeed, she found the “top star men” (who she doesn’t name) were less supportive of her struggle with BBC executives than other male colleagues – suggesting they “perhaps hadn’t had such bruising encounters with managers so they didn’t understand what those looked like”.

“I’m still furious,” Gracie says now, claiming women continue to be paid unfairly at the BBC. The private BBC women’s WhatsApp group (deleted daily en masse), which supported Gracie and others through their fight, remains active.

“There are lots of people being turned down on equal pay claims all the time,” she reveals. “There are still a lot of fights ongoing… we’re not winning. Women are not winning this fight.”

This article was amended on 12/9/19 to say that three, not two, of the top ten BBC earners are women.

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This article appears in the 11 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos