Women and discrimination

On Tuesday, as the Commission on the Status of Women began their 63rd session at the UN in New York, news broke that the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission had launched an investigation into the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) over whether it has been paying women less than men for doing the same work.

Last year, BBC China Editor Carrie Gracie resigned after publicly accusing the corporation of pay discrimination stating that men who were also international editors were earning substantially more than she was. Although the BBC had earlier told Ms Gracie that she was earning less than her male counterparts because during 2014 – 2016 she was “in development”, when she went public, the corporation apologised to her and agreed to pay her an undisclosed sum of back pay, which Ms Gracie said she would donate to charity. What she had really wanted was the apology and acknowledgement that the BBC had reneged on its agreement to pay her on par with what her male peers were earning.

According to reports from the Telegraph, some 200 other women journalists from various sections of the corporation also made complaints, and some said that after they did, they were offered ad-hoc increases that still did not equal what men on the same level were earning. This saw the UK government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee looking into the issue and declaring in a report published last year that the BBC had a gender pay gap of 7.6%. In fact, the BBC, as a public-sector corporation (it is publicly funded) has a responsibility to uphold Britain’s Equality Act of 2010, which states that men and women must be paid the same for doing “the same work, like work and work of equal value”, the committee basically said.

The BBC, which has some 90,000 employees, CNN said, related through a spokesperson that it was “profoundly sorry” for historic pay cases, but said it believed “our pay structures are now fair” and “transparent to staff.”

However, in a 2017 report, the BBC had also revealed that women made up fewer than a third of its highest paid staff, which included media stars, executives and managers. Maybe after the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission completes its gender gap pay investigation at the end of this year, it will go right into an inquiry involving the BBC’s hiring policies.

Meanwhile, whether or not the Rights Commission finds the BBC guilty of unfair pay practices now, the corporation had already admitted last year that it had discriminated against Ms Gracie for at least three years. She had only realised she was being stabbed in the back when the UK government mandated the BBC to publish a list of all of its employees earning more than £150,000. Ms Gracie was not on the list, though it included men who were doing the same job as she was.

One has to wonder if this level of hypocrisy could exist at the BBC, which has given hundreds of hours of air time to women’s rights struggles, what must be happening elsewhere. How many other women in countries that have signed on to the International Labour Organisation’s 1951 Convention on Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value have not been receiving their due? How many countries are still flouting the legally binding 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women?

An educated guess would be that this is occurring wherever governments and employers think they can get away with it. And while there is likely to be redress for the women working at the BBC at the end of this investigation once fault is found, one cannot say the same for their peers elsewhere in the world.

As an example, last Sunday’s Women’s Chronicles column carried the narrative of a 41-year-old single mother of four who abruptly left a job in the interior because of the harassment she was being subjected to by the men she was hired to cook for. The woman, who spoke anonymously, told this newspaper about men who spoke to her disrespectfully and who tried to touch her inappropriately.

She left because she obviously felt she would/could not be protected by her employers. But what was also striking in her story were her salary and working conditions. She worked 7 days a week from 5 am to nearly 8 pm for $100,000 a month; her employers would have provided her with basic room and board. She may have initially thought the salary was good as she clearly imagined saving it all and doing grand things with it whenever she got leave from her job and was able to return to her children.

She spoke too of doing the same job before, of other women who worked as cooks and were constantly harassed and some who ended up having relations with the men in the camps. This is an issue that has been raised before. Women are obviously hired as cooks in mining camps, not because men cannot cook, but because women can be and are paid substantially less than a man would demand. Men are also less likely to be sexually harassed. It is not quite the same thing but serves to illuminate the predicament women still face.

Last week, when the world observed International Women’s Day, the progress and strides made were much vaunted. But at Tuesday’s opening of the Commission on the Status of Women Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka lamented that the gains were fragile and were being reversed. “Overall, progress is uneven, slow, insufficient and subject to backsliding. This picture indicates a worrying trend for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” she noted. The truth is that gender equity will remain elusive until the patriarchy that holds men as superior to women is totally and utterly dismantled.

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