Thursday 23 May 2019

Mary Kenny: Because she's worth it?

Equal pay is altogether just - but sometimes other factors kick in

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

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 should 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.

Actually, 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.

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 30pc less than the chap who worked alongside them in, say, an architect's office.

And 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 "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!

A 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, when their China editor, Carrie Gracie, angrily tendered 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-£249,000, and the Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen, £150,000-£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 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 different systems in conflict here. One is the civil service template, from which corporations like the BBC (and RTÉ) 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 RTÉ) have morphed into, is the 'star' system. In the 'star' system, big names are paid big bucks, while the little people are paid whatever they can get.

In the case of the BBC (and RTÉ), they need to decide whether they are on the civil service or the showbiz model. The Carrie Gracie storm has 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.


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