Reading that six of the BBC’s most prominent male presenters had their pay slashed following alarm over the organisation’s gender pay divide I wondered whether this is something of a knee-jerk reaction  that rather misses the point of the issue.  

According to the BBC, News at Ten anchor Huw Edwards, Today’s John Humphrys, his presenting colleague Nick Robinson, radio stalwarts Nicky Campbell and Jeremy Vine and North America editor Jon Sopel all consented to pay reductions, with immediate effect.

For Humphrys and Sopel, this was a particularly interesting development, considering the pair had been caught making light of the issue on a hot mic. Their leaked exchange followed former BBC China editor Carrie Gracie’s decision to resign from her post in protest at the broadcaster’s intransigence on the  gulf between male and female salaries.

Being fair

You can’t knock the decision of these journalists and presenters to accept pay cuts. They’re acting in the spirit of fairness. But dealing with it like this  makes it appear to be a zero-sum game. The BBC’s response implies that to ensure female staff are earning more, their male counterparts must earn less. Not an approach that really tackles the  problem of the gender pay gap.

If this were a standard benchmarking exercise designed to pin down the average wage that a TV or radio presenter should earn, then gender wouldn’t be factored into the description at all. It would be an analysis of the profession as a whole – not the profession as two opposed factions. This would seem to be, in my opinion, a fairer and less inflammatory approach.

Focus on facts

The availability of average data would be the starting point of a conversation with all presenters to assess whether anyone is being over or underpaid. Decisions as to pay increases or decreases would then at least be based on some empirical financial data, rather than the more adversarial, gender-based  approach that has been adopted.

What the BBC has done here is make this rather personal. Admittedly these are household names but reducing the focus on personalities and concentrating on the process should mean it’s not about winners and losers: ‘These people over here are overpaid; those people over there are underpaid. We’re not taking salary percentages from one group to give to the other. What we’re actually doing, across the board, is ensuring that our salaries are in line.’ Leave gender out of the equation. The focus on gender as the overarching reason why pay cuts are happening only risks deepening resentment on each side.

At the Institute of Leadership & Management, we believe authentic leadership is underpinned by ethical decision-making. And ethical behaviour in organisations involves demonstrating key moral principles that include:

The existence of a gender pay gap – where men are paid more than women for doing similar work – is, quite simply, unethical. 

Take an ethical stance

At the Institute, our research has indicated the importance of ethical behaviour starting at the top and how it needs to encouraged and supported by every person in the organisation.

Chief executive of Unilever UK Paul Polman agrees that it’s only cultural changes in an organisation that can close the gender pay gap. Polman walks the talk too, because according to a recent article in the Evening Standard, at Unilever women are paid 8.8% more than men in average hourly pay. And women now account for 50.7% of all management positions in Unilever’s UK business, up from 41.8% in 2010.

In the article, Polman said, “there seems to be an increased understanding of the need to change corporate culture and practice rather than carry on ‘papering over the cracks’.”

The BBC could do well to follow his lead.

For more information about our research, visit our Institute of Leadership & Management website and join us on Twitter @InstituteLM

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