It isn’t always easy to talk about money, particularly if you’re a woman. Not so long ago, over dinner with a male colleague, the subject of our salaries came up. He and I work at different organisations, and our skills and responsibilities, though similar, are not precisely the same. Nevertheless, when this man, who is the same age as me and who went to the same university, revealed that he earns twice as much as I do, I was shocked by how I felt. Outwardly, I made a joke of my indignation, demanding that he pay the bill. But inwardly, something inside me faltered: my confidence. Was it possible that this journalist, a man I admire deeply, would now think less of me, knowing that, on paper, I’m worth only half what he is? More to the point, did I now think less of myself? I worried that the answer to both these questions was yes.
We tell ourselves that money doesn’t matter. The nature of the work that I do is, and always has been, more important to me than the fatness of my pay slip (and, yes, I know I’m lucky to be able to make this choice). But equality matters too: it is, in fact, everything. In 2017, when the BBC was forced to reveal the salaries of employees who earned more than £150,000, Carrie Gracie, its China editor, discovered that, while her own name was not on this select list, Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North American editor, was paid between £230,000 and £239,000. How did this news make her feel? Naturally, she was angry. Not only had the BBC begged her to take up her job, insisting she was the only suitable candidate; she had made pay equality a condition of her acceptance, which meant she had been lied to. But she experienced other feelings, too: a faltering. This was a degradation of her abilities, her experience and her dedication.
Gracie’s book about her ultimately successful battle to win pay equality at the BBC isn’t always an entirely gripping read. As she acknowledges, long accounts of grievance hearings, all circumspection and tedious HR-speak are likely to make anyone’s eyes glaze over. Moreover, the fact that she still works for the BBC – having resigned her position as China editor, she is now once again a news presenter – means that she is careful when it comes to venting her feelings about those (mostly men) who so casually belittled her, in ways both big and small. But still, her book is important, and not only for the sound advice it offers to those who may be going through something similar (it is a manual as much as a memoir).
Gracie understands all the various ways in which pay inequality can play havoc with a person’s self-belief and peace of mind, and in her book she staples them to the page. It isn’t only that, as a skirmish turns first into a prolonged battle and then into something approaching a war, she is frightened and frequently weary; that she hardly knows who among her bosses, if any, she can trust. For me, the most resonant parts of her book have to do with her self worth. “Carrie, it’s always such a joy to see you,” says James Harding, the then director of news at the BBC, when she sees him for a meeting in 2015. “You deliver so much and ask so little.” At the time, she received these words almost gratefully, as women are apt to do. (If people cannot recognise our talent, at least let them salute our efficiency!) Cut to a couple of years later, however, and the BBC is talking of her “growth and development” as if she were some graduate at the beginning of her career, not a woman in her 50s who speaks fluent Mandarin and who knows China inside out.
Having to assert the value of her work gets her down. It makes her feel boastful. I understand this and so will many women. But the lesson here is also depressingly obvious. Men are not necessarily going to acknowledge how hard we work themselves, or not in any concrete way, for all that our productivity may be exceedingly useful (“you ask so little”). Some of them, in fact, may be quite determined not to acknowledge it, or even to notice it at all. This is a wilful blindness, and though the law is on our side, there is still, alas, every chance it is reflected in our pay packets (there are ways round the law). My own advice, having read Gracie’s book and having fought some battles of my own, is this: be grateful, but not too grateful. Don’t measure yourself against others, but don’t stop looking around you either. Ask the men questions, and if they don’t – or won’t – answer, ask yourself why.
This review is from the Observer
• Equal: A Story of Women, Men and Money by Carrie Gracie is published by Virago (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99