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Inequality in Pay

Equal pay was a highly contentious issue in the interwar years. It was a focus of feminist campaigners and professional women’s trade unions, with teachers and Civil Servants at the forefront of the struggle. [1] The BBC, unlike teaching and the Civil Service, did not operate separate salary scales for women and men. All salaried staff were graded from ‘E’ (lowest) to ‘A’ (highest). However, the process of recruitment, coupled with the realities of promotion, meant there were proportionally far more women in the lower grades ‘E’ and ‘D’ (56 per cent of women as compared to 25 per cent of men) than the top grades ‘B’ and ‘A’ (11.5 per cent of women compared to 39 per cent of men). Only two women, Hilda Matheson and Mary Somerville, were ever graded ‘A’, as Chapter 6 will show. 1[2] And being in a lower grade was, naturally, associated with lower pay.

A chief reason for discrepancies in earnings at the BBC was starting salaries. Almost invariably, those promoted from the waged ranks started their salaried careers on ?260 a year. Similarly, women recruited from outside the BBC were likely to start on this rate, often thrilled with the amount. Olive Shapley, for instance, recalled that as she sat in the studio on her first day watching a BBC colleague play a tune on a tin whistle, she thought ‘they can’t be going to pay me ?250 a year for doing this’ (in fact, as noted, her starting pay was ?260). 1 [3] In Our Freedom and its Results, Ray Strachey commented on how the task itself appeared to absorb able women who were not active in demanding increases of pay and status. It was an observable fact, she noted, that women were apt to be ‘tame, timid and biddable employees’.[4] At the BBC, all salaries were independently negotiated which resulted in huge variations between staff, men and women alike. For women, this could have a doubly detrimental effect because not only were they less adept at negotiating higher starting rates (if they were even aware that salary levels could be discussed) but also they were far more likely to have come to the BBC from a lower paid job. This was recognised in 1938 when it was pointed out that although ‘theoretically’ the same payment was made to women and men for comparable work, because starting salaries related to outside market value, women generally began lower in the salary scales so ‘age for age they were generally paid less’.[5] Reith was also attune to the significance of starting salaries. Janet Adam Smith was startled to discover that she had been given a ?100 salary rise just two weeks before she left the BBC. It had been specifically requested by Reith who was aware that, if Adam Smith were to work again, her future employer would ask what she had last earned at the BBC ‘and it would be better to say ?650 than ?550’.[6]

On rare occasions women did negotiate high starting salaries. Mary Somerville and Mary Adams, for example, and also Christine Orr. Orr refused to take less than ?500 a year as Edinburgh Children’s Hour Organiser (she had been earning ?600 as a freelance journalist) even though this was almost double the usual rate for the role.[7] Annual increments were also linked to the grade, with those on ?500 a year or above regularly receiving a pay rise of ?50 or more.[8] Even in the lower grades, while for women a ?20 annual rise was the norm, for men it was frequently more which suggests that they were often valued more highly and also that they were better at securing a higher rate.

A few women, like Doris Arnold, successfully bargained for above average salary rises.[9] [10] Others, like Mary Hope Allen had an arduous battle to secure her ?500 a year. Allen, the only woman in the BBC’s experimental Research Section earned, in April 1930, ?280 a year. Her three colleagues Lance Sieveking, Archie Harding and E.J. King Bull earned respectively ?800, ?500 and ?400. In March 1931 she wrote to Reith complaining that her salary had only accumulated ‘dribble by dribble’ and stating that her financial ambition was ‘to earn as much as the smallest salaried man in my section’. 1 57 After much management deliberation, in which it was emphatically denied that women were treated differently from men, she was granted a salary rise of ?100. Olive Shapley is another example of an undervalued woman. It was recognised in April 1939 that she earned substantially less than her colleague Geoffrey Bridson (?425 to his ?700) even though both were regarded as exceptional. Bridson was paid more because his market value was higher—there were fears that he might leave the BBC for film work.[11] In response, Shapley was regraded and her salary was increased to ?600.[12]

There is no indication that Shapley ever felt dissatisfied with her pay (she had never pushed for the rise), and this acceptance of women’s lower earnings, both by the individual and their managers, is a further reason why BBC women often earned less than men. This was acknowledged in the BBC’s submission to the Royal Commission on Equal Pay in 1945. In preparation for the report, the Director of Staff Administration, Pym, informed William Haley, the new Director General, that although there were no posts in the Corporation in which different rates of pay were assigned to men and women for equal work, it did occasionally happen a woman was, ‘put into the lower grade rather than the higher, or take longer to obtain her promotion, simply because she is a woman and not because her particular qualifications or performance in the post are below that of a man’.[13] Managers, when prompted, might rectify unequal pay but it frequently continued unobserved.

  • [1] See, for example, Winifred Holtby, ‘Fear and the Woman who Earns’, News Chronicle,9 March 1934; Vera Brittain, ‘Women still wait for Equality’, Daily Herald, 26 March 1938.Both quoted in Berry and Bishop, Testament of a Generation, pp. 81-3; 144-6. Strachey,Careers and Openings, pp. 69-76. In the Clerical/ Executive grades of the Civil Servicealthough starting salaries were the same, the rate of increase for women was less and theywere ultimately paid three-quarters or four-fifths the salary of their male colleagues. TheBurnham Salary Scales for teachers specified that women should earn 80 per cent that ofmen. Glew, ‘Women in the GPO’, p. 89, Oram, Women Teachers, p. 25.
  • [2] For those in Grade C, the proportion was more equal, 35.5 per cent of men comparedto 32 per cent women. These figures are derived from two sources: Salary Information Filesand BBC/WAC:R49/231/1.
  • [3] Shapley, Broadcasting: A Life, p. 34.
  • [4] Strachey, Our Freedom, p. 164.
  • [5] BBC/WAC:R49/605: Standardisation of Salaries, Pym to Nicolls, 11 November 1938.
  • [6] Janet Adam Smith interview.
  • [7] BBC/WAC:L1/328/1: Christine Orr Staff File, Orr to Dinwiddie, 7 October 1936;Orr to Pym, 13 November 1936.
  • [8] Salary Information Files.
  • [9] DAF, Beadle to Clarke, 11 October 1933.
  • [10] MHAF: 2, Undated letter from Allen to Reith, c. March 1931.
  • [11] BBC/WAC:L1/1821/1: Geoffrey Bridson Staff File, Confidential Report 1938.
  • [12] BBC/WAC:L1/1,783/1: Olive Shapley Staff File, Pym to Nicolls, 8 June 1939.
  • [13] BBC/WAC:R49/177: Staff Policy: Equal Pay for Men and Women, 1943-46, Pym toHaley, 16 May 1944.
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