Hysteria about the BBC gender pay gap won’t help women in the workplace

Nerissa Chesterfield
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Countless newspaper articles and television debates have dug up the spurious 18 per cent pay gap figure (Source: Getty)

The publication of the BBC stars’ salaries last week has caused quite a stir.

Leaving aside the question of whether the licence fee payers’ hard earned cash – which they are obliged to pay by law – is being spent in the most reasonable way, a gender pay gap has been brought under the spotlight.

Undoubtedly, these figures make for quite shocking reading. As a viewer of the Ten O’Clock News, it’s not obvious why Huw Edwards is earning a third more than Fiona Bruce for apparently doing the same job. Rightly so, female presenters are now calling for the pay disparity to be explained. We wait in earnest to see if this will be forthcoming.

Read more: Do the BBC's pay figures reveal a sexism problem within the corporation?

But amid this furore, the facts about the gender pay gap, separate to that at the BBC, seem to have been lost and must be found again – for women’s sake.

This revelation has prompted the re-surfacing of several misinterpretations about the gender pay gap in the private sector. Countless newspaper articles and television debates have dug up the spurious 18 per cent pay gap figure – an extremely inflated estimation as it calculates “median gross pay” for male and female employees without considering key factors such as hours worked and time taken off.

If you compare hourly rates, as the ONS did in their analysis, the pay gap is closer to nine per cent. And the picture is even more promising for women between the ages of 22-39. In February 2016 they were paid 0.8 per cent more than their male counterparts on average.

So why, in 2017, do we still have a pay gap at all? The evidence shows that we have a motherhood gap, forming when women beyond the age of 39 have taken time out of work, often for familial reasons, and usually then return to work part-time. Unfortunately, policymakers have not addressed this fact.

Regulatory interference such as forcing businesses to publish pay gaps – introduced in April this year – will end up having perverse outcomes for employees, particularly women. If employers are looking for entry level job applicants, they may be dissuaded from hiring a woman in order to ensure that their pay gap statistics look good.

It may also weaken women’s bargaining power if they would prefer something other than a pay rise, such as more flexible working hours.

We know of the BBC’s gap because of their obligation to now publish pay. But before we jump to conclusions, we should consider that this is pretty much in line with the national pay gap, and so could be explained by factors such as career breaks, rather than discrimination.

In the private sector, we have evidence to suggest there still remains a (perhaps subconscious) societal expectation in this country for women to take on the primary role of parenting.

Piling more regulations onto businesses is not going to tackle this. As a society we need to change our outlooks, remove stigmas around men taking parental leave, and make the option for shared leave much more widely known so that individuals can make more informed choices.

So before the hysterical calls for more government action ring out following the BBC disclosure, ministers and those reporting on the story should take a step back and digest the true gender pay gap statistics, so that we can help women with informed policy rather than knee-jerk reactions.

Read more: "I'm not sure I could explain it": BBC presenter quizzed on £600,000 pay

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