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Inequality in Recruitment

In her 1934 book Women and a Changing Civilisation Winifred Holtby devoted nine pages to what she described as ‘The Inferiority Complex’, a woman’s doubt in her own capacities.[1] This is one explanation as to why so many salaried women began their BBC careers as waged members of staff. More than half of those who held salaried posts had started this way, which compares starkly with the 90 per cent of men who were appointed directly to the salaried grades.[2] Unquestionably many young men, especially those who came from privileged backgrounds, exuded an air of entitlement to the influential jobs they quickly held at the BBC. The memoirs of Val Gielgud, Eric Maschwitz and Lance Sieveking make this immediately apparent.[3] [4] The three were recruited on far bigger salaries than the ?260 starting rate which, as will become clear, was a major reason for unequal pay. 1 32 While scores of men were recruited directly to high grade jobs, only three women arrived at the BBC on ?500 or above before the Second World War, Hilda Matheson, Mary Adams and Christine Orr.

The ‘old boys’ network was a key element of inequality in recruitment; a recurrent question at interviews was which public school had been attended.[5] The rapid growth of the BBC generated an almost insatiable demand for programme makers, administrators, publicity staff, technicians and so on. Without formal entry requirements, at least until the mid-1930s, the quickest and easiest way to fill these roles was through personal contacts and on the whole, men suggested men. Being oblivious to women was characteristic of the upper echelons of management in the interwar years and similarly at the BBC, women were simply not in the frame. Although they might be considered if they put themselves forward or were suggested for BBC employment, the person who came most readily to mind was male.[6] As Mary Agnes Hamilton pointed out, it did not occur to men when contemplating such issues ‘that they were doing anything out of the way’.[7] Reith was adamant that it was the ‘duty’ of the BBC ‘to get the best man however we may come upon him’.[8] Val Gielgud’s arrival is a case in point. Looking back on his long career from the vantage point of 1947, he declared his support for ‘nepotism and favouritism’ believing, correctly, that his own appointment in 1928 was due to the insistence of his two close friends Lance Sieveking (then a Talks Assistant) and Eric Maschwitz (then Editor of Radio Times).[9] Sieveking jested that in 1926 he was getting ‘bright young men on to our staff at the rate of about one a week’.[10]

The introduction of Appointment Boards in 1934 did not markedly improve the situation for women; four-fifths of Boards interviewed only men.[11] In fact the BBC’s increased bureaucratisation and the march towards professionalism appear to have made it harder rather than easier for women to get salaried positions. In 1939, a junior staff member, Daphne Parsons, drew attention to the fact that some advertised jobs were not open to women. These were identified as Editor and Deputy Editor of The Listener; the European Public Relations Officer; the Assistant Director of Office Administration; the Empire Programme Organiser; the Glasgow Director, the Outside Broadcast Manager and the position of Television Studio Manager.[12] The list is all the more surprising as at least one of these positions had, in the past, been held by a woman. It was conceded that, while there were occasionally vacancies for which women might not be wanted, no female member of staff was in fact debarred from applying.[13]

  • [1] Winifred Holtby (1934) Women and a Changing Civilisation (London: Lane andBodley Head) pp. 97-105. Vera Brittain also eloquently described this in her article ‘TheWhole Duty of Women, Time and Tide, 23 February 1928, in Paul Berry and Alan Bishop,eds. (1985) Testament ofa Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby(London: Virago) pp. 120-3.
  • [2] Salary Information Files. Of the 702 men, only 60 had joined as weekly paid staff.
  • [3] Val Gielgud (1947) Years ofthe Locust (London: Nicholson and Watson); Eric Maschwitz(1957) No Chip on my Shoulder (London: Herbert Jenkins); BBC/WAC:S61: SpecialCollections: Autobiographical Sketches of Lance Sieveking.
  • [4] Gielgud on ?450, Maschwitz on ?325, Sieveking on ?600. Sieveking and Maschwitzjoined the BBC in 1926, Gielgud in 1928.
  • [5] LeMahieu, A Culture for Democracy, p. 183. For a discussion on the ‘old boys’ networksee, for example, Krista Cowman and Louise Jackson eds. (2005) Women and Work Culturein Britain c. 1850-1950 (Aldershot: Ashgate) p. 15. This is much of the premise of NoelAnnan, Our Age, pp. 26-68.
  • [6] Virginia Woolf noted men’s propensity to appoint men. Woolf, Three Guineas,pp. 217-31.
  • [7] Strachey, ed., Our Freedom, p. 257.
  • [8] BBC/WAC:R13/216/1: Schools Broadcasting Department, Reith to Carpendale, 25May 1935.
  • [9] Val Gielgud, Years of the Locust, p. 46. ‘Lance Sieveking urged my intelligence uponRoger Eckersley, at that time Director of Programmes. Eric Maschwitz murmured of mymerits into the ear of Gladstone Murray, Director of Public Relations’.
  • [10] Sieveking, Autobiographical Sketches, p. 50.
  • [11] BBC/WAC:R49/27/1-3: Appointment Boards.
  • [12] This list was of all vacancies between 6 February and 12 April for which women had notbeen asked to apply. BBC/WAC:R49/739: Staff Vacancies, Pym to Clarke, 21 April 1939.
  • [13] Pym to Nicolls, 28 April 1939.
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