Belfast Telegraph

Because she's worth it ... of course equal pay is right, but don't ever price yourself out of the market

Barbara Castle
Barbara Castle
Paying respect: journalist Carrie Gracie
Mariella Frostrup

By Mary Kenny

When I was a young woman, I was an executive on a London evening newspaper, and when a political storm broke over a trade union dispute, I suggested we commission Barbara Castle to write a comment piece.

Barbara Castle had been a pioneering female Labour politician who, as Employment Minister, had put through the British Equal Pay Act. She was perfect casting for the subject matter.

But the editor demurred. "She's too expensive," he said. "We have to pay her double what we pay anyone else."

Barbara also had a "very aggressive" agent who was adept at demanding high fees - also a woman, incidentally.

I think in the end we did ask Lady Castle to bestow her deathless prose, but I remember the editor adding we should only call on her "sparingly", for budgetary reasons. It was a useful tutorial for me on the basic economic principle of supply and demand - as well as the theory of the market price.

The theory of the market price is illuminated by the question, 'What is the price of a Picasso?' The price of a Picasso is whatever someone is willing to pay for it.

I admired Baroness Castle for knowing her own worth (good socialist that she was). And I also admire, nowadays, a younger generation of women who have the confidence to demand their right to equal pay in all circumstances.

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Women today have made it clear they will no longer put up with being paid less than a male colleague doing the same job. Some older women, too, are furious to discover that, in the past, they were paid up to 30% less than the chap who worked alongside them in, say, an architect's office.

Yet, psychologically, I would find it difficult to share this more self-assured attitude. There would be two inhibitory factors in my background culture.

One is that there's something not quite nice in talking about money. Words like 'grasping' and 'avaricious' come to mind. Would you want to see 'She was very fond of money' on your gravestone?

The second factor is that we were, I think, brought up to be humble and grateful - even when appearing feisty and rebellious. As in, 'Someone is giving me an interesting job! And they're paying me money! How kind!'

The younger generation don't think like that. They feel entitled to be employed if they have the qualifications, and women feel entitled to be paid at the same rate as a man.

The recent pay row at the BBC illustrated this generational change in tone, with the China editor, Carrie Gracie, angrily tendering her resignation after learning about unequal pay rates. While Ms Gracie, an expert in Mandarin, was getting a salary of £135,000, the North American editor, Jon Sopel, was pulling in £200,000 to £249,000, and the Middle East correspondent, Jeremy Bowen, £150,000 to £199,000.

This was an illegal example of gender pay disparity, and Carrie Gracie was supported by up to 200 BBC women, including Mishal Husain, Clare Balding and Kirsty Wark.

In principle, I thought this collective female confidence terrific, yet I also couldn't help feeling that all the salaries being discussed were pretty eye-watering. When the BBC offered Carrie Gracie a rise of an extra £45,000 a year and she turned it down, I began to wonder where equality stops and entitlement begins.

I also heard other women remark - "but I watch Jon Sopel on the TV news nearly every night from Washington. I've never heard of Carrie Gracie 'til now!" Brand recognition can be another element in pay.

And if the BBC - a useful laboratory in which to examine these matters - is guilty of unlawfully paying women less than men, it still pays some women a heck of a lot of dosh.

Mariella Frostrup, who grew up in Dublin, does a fine job presenting a 30-minute weekly radio book programme for, reportedly, £65,000 annually. Mariella has a mesmeric speaking voice and thus her rates for after-dinner speeches are between £5,000 and £10,000. So there's the market price factor kicking in.

Truth is, there are two systems in conflict here. One is the civil service template, from which corporations like the BBC (and RTE) arose. In the public service, pay is set according to a matrix of grades, and everyone should be paid the same as everyone else in their grade.

But the second model, which the BBC (and RTE) have morphed into, is the 'star' system. In the star system, big names are paid big bucks, and the little people are paid whatever they can get. In the case of the BBC (and RTE), they need to decide whether they are on the civil service or showbiz model.

The Carrie Gracie storm also prompted widespread suggestions that the men should be paid rather less. Why should a male newsreader, whose skill is to keep his nerve while he reads off autocue, get more than half a million quid a year? He's not Picasso.

A new generation of working women will not be easily assuaged, and they have the confidence to affirm that they're worth every penny of what any man gets.

I wish them well, although for me, the Barbara Castle lesson will always be too deeply embedded in my psyche, in which, by demanding too much, one may price oneself out of the market.

Belfast Telegraph


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