Friday 18 October 2019

Liz Kearney: 'BBC's Wark proves positive discrimination may be best way to close gender power gap'

A leg up: 'Newsnight' presenter Kirsty Wark admits she got certain career opportunities because she is a woman
A leg up: 'Newsnight' presenter Kirsty Wark admits she got certain career opportunities because she is a woman
Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney

Does positive discrimination work? Watching Kirsty Wark grilling politicians over Brexit on BBC's 'Newsnight', composed as ever and making it all look sublimely effortless, it is difficult to imagine that she got to the very top of British broadcasting thanks to anything but sheer professional brilliance.

So it is a surprise to hear Wark herself admit that her own stellar career path has in fact benefitted from a wave of positive discrimination initiatives at the BBC, as the organisation pushed to ensure greater diversity.

"I joined the BBC as a graduate entry when they needed more women," she told a book festival audience in Oxfordshire last week.

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BBC New Broadcasting House in London. Photo: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
BBC New Broadcasting House in London. Photo: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

"I became a producer young because they needed more women in senior positions. Now I'm still on television because I'm older.

"I'm not quite sure it would have been the same if it were 10 years earlier, but I've been quite privileged to have the longevity of this career."

Conceding that being a woman in the workplace has actually bolstered your success is taboo, to say the least, and as many were quick to point out, Wark is so talented and hard-working that she would have succeeded in her chosen career with or without gender initiatives.

That's probably true, but it's also equally possible that she might not have scaled the professional heights for quite as long as she has if she hadn't been given some fantastic opportunities at just the right time in her career.

Her story is refreshingly upbeat, because we are far more used to hearing about women who feel that their careers have been hampered by the fact of their gender. And it underlines the potential benefits of positive discrimination, at a time when gender balance is a growing concern to all of us.

Most companies are by now keenly aware that women must play a crucial role at all levels in order to keep pace with modern life.

This is especially true for organisations like the BBC, which has a public service remit and needs to make programmes with broad appeal.

And so for all kinds of reasons, across all kinds of industries, we're witnessing a growth in gender initiatives; from the women-only academic posts proposed here last year to this week's announcement by Justice and Equality Minister Charlie Flanagan of additional funding for female start-ups and small businesses.

But will those initiatives work? Looking at the BBC's examples, they might not be the quick fix we hope they'll be.

Because even despite decades of promoting women, the organisation still found itself embroiled in the embarrassing Carrie Gracie pay row (the China editor quit her post last year after finding out that male colleagues were being paid nearly twice her salary for doing similar jobs).

And just this week, the newly retired presenter John Humphrys pointed out that in the 100-year history of the BBC, there had never been a female director general. That needed to change, he said.

The lesson seems to be that, while things are moving in the right direction, they are not moving nearly fast enough. And it is the same everywhere you look. Earlier this year, the Central Statistics Office's first Gender Balance in Business figures explored gender representation at the most senior levels in large companies.

It found that women make up 28pc of senior executive roles compared with 72pc for men. Just 12pc of chief executives are women, 7pc of board chairpersons and 20pc of board members.

Outside of business, things are arguably worse. In our hospitals, fewer than 7pc of consultant surgeons are women. Women working in scientific research and development here earn 30pc less than men. That's the biggest such pay gap in the EU.

Many theories abound about why women are such a rare breed at the top of their chosen professions. We're told that we don't like to put ourselves forward. That we suffer imposter syndrome. We value work-life balance and don't want to make the sacrifices involved in getting to the very top. Childcare is too expensive so we opt out of work after the second or third baby. We married the wrong guy who doesn't support our career and we're worn out from the second shift at home. We don't take sufficient credit when we do a good job. We don't push hard enough for promotion. We don't really want the top job. The list goes on.

In reality, there are probably as many different reasons as there are women, but the power gap remains.

That's why positive discrimination remains a compelling but contentious measure. On the one hand, it seems ludicrous to try to fight inequality with inequality. But on the other hand, you have Kirsty Wark.

Her story illustrates an important point; an amazingly capable woman was given a series of breaks that she might not otherwise have got, and that has paid dividends; for her employers, for her viewers, and, of course, for Wark herself.

Shouldn't we sit up and take notice?

Irish Independent

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