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Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC


The BBC’s salaried women worked in a wide variety of positions that were broadly viewed to be equal to those of men. They were bright, motivated women in the vanguard of Britain’s post-suffrage generation, an era when new professional opportunities were opening up. Ray Strachey, for instance, celebrated the ‘queer’ jobs that were now available and which represented the adventurousness of women, the diversity of which was evident at the BBC.[1] The rapid expansion of the Company/Corporation in the interwar years meant that there was the chance to grasp the initiative and to develop new areas of work be it as a Drama Producer, a Librarian or an Advertising Representative. Personal files reveal women to be conscientious employees, praised for their hard work, loyalty and creativity. The BBC was constantly in the public eye and the employment of women was applauded by the press, their prominence in unusual areas of work and in well-paid roles played to the image of the BBC as a progressive, forwardlooking organisation.

However, while there was an outward impression of modernity and equality, in reality BBC women faced unspoken discrimination in recruitment, promotion and pay. Salaried posts were frequently filled by personal recommendation and whether these were university friends, the relatives of acquaintances or nominated outsiders, it gave an advantage to men. Men also benefited from having more dynamic BBC careers. They were encouraged to move between departments; each new position offering not only a salary rise but wider experience, indispensable to those aspiring to reach the top. Salaried women, on the other hand, often remained in the same job for their entire career, gradually working their way up. They rarely put themselves forward for promotions nor were they earmarked by their managers for significant new posts. Most had started their BBC careers on the bottom rung of the salary ladder with significant numbers promoted from the waged ranks. This meant they were subsequently disadvantaged by lower annual increments while only a handful appear to have been as adept as men at negotiating higher rates. Nevertheless, by interwar standards, the pay and conditions of service at the BBC were good and most women accepted these without complaint. The majority earned more than ?300 a year, a salary identified by Margaret Cole, as ‘doing very well indeed’.[2]

Salaried women made a notable contribution to the BBC. They created acclaimed programmes, supplied visual images, oversaw copyright and supervised essential services. The BBC’s unique position as the first broadcasting industry, with the novelty of creating what would become a British institution from scratch, gave unique opportunities for women. They were able to access challenging and fulfilling jobs and to progress to positions of seniority which influenced the development of the Corporation and contributed to its cultural growth. Four BBC women commanded exceptional salaries for the times and the next chapter considers the careers of Mary Somerville, Hilda Matheson, Isa Benzie and Mary Adams.

  • [1] Strachey, Our Freedom, p. 141.
  • [2] Margaret Cole (1938) Marriage: Past and Present (London: Dent and Son) p. 153.
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