Exclusive Interview

NMP Live Meets Carrie Gracie

With a BBC career spanning more than three decades, Carrie Gracie covered every major national and international news story including 9/11, the Iraq war, 7/11 as well as the MPs' expenses scandal.

However, in January 2018 Carrie made the headlines herself when she resigned from her post as BBC China Editor citing pay discrimination over gender. She published an open letter to BBC audiences and later appeared before a parliamentary committee.

After a yearlong struggle, she won a public apology from the BBC as well as back-pay, which she donated in full to the Equal Pay Advice Service and the Fawcett Society.

In our exclusive interview, we learn about the struggles and challenges Carrie faced taking on the might of the BBC, and what society can do to change the culture around gender bias.

Watch the full interview here or read the transcript below.

In conversation with Carrie Gracie

I joined the BBC as a production trainee back in the mid '80s or late '80s. There didn't seem to be that many routes in, and I was really interested in international news. And having been in China for a year as a teacher, I'd tried to listen to the World Service and I had a sense of BBC World Service and the importance of it as a source of information in a closed country. So I was really keen to join the World Service. So I joined as a production trainee, did two years as a trainee, and then became a producer, senior producer. And then I went off to China to be a reporter.

So I made that switch between production and on-screen or on-air reporting job. Until fairly recently, I never left because obviously the BBC is such a huge beast that you can do all manner of things in that organisation and never get bored.

When you returned from reporting in China, what was your role at the BBC?

So I tried to mix and match between reporting and presenting, but I was predominantly a presenter, both of rolling news, but also I had an interview show on the World Service, which was great because it allowed you to tackle subjects in more depth than the three minute interview or six minute discussion that you get on a rolling news channel.

So I guess I did those things and I kept up the China thing to such an extent that I had a project that I really loved called White Horse Village, which where I focused on this village that was being transformed into a city. Because of course, one of the big things in China is urbanization and the rise of a middle class in China, and the fact that a nation of farmers, rice farmers obviously to a large extent, planting every seed by hand have been turned into a nation, the factory of the world from which we all buy our goods.

So I wanted to cover that story in a visual and in a personal and intimate way. So I picked this particular village that was being transformed into a city and I concentrated on three families for reasons I won't bore with. I knew the backstories of these families, and I just followed them over the course of 10 years. And that project called White Horse Village became just something that I loved so much covering that story because it would change all the time. It was really dramatic what happened to people. It was dramatic what happened to the community, and it was dramatic visually to see this tiny farming village become a city of high-rises. And that project, perhaps because I could only do it once in a while, I was still committed in London and doing this other work, and then I would go out to China and do this only once in a while, it had a lot of freshness and energy about it. And it won an Emmy and it won a Peabody. And so despite the fact of not being in China every day of my life in those years, I managed to make my China work really sing, I think, I hope.

What led to the revelation of the BBC’s pay disparity?

What happened was that in the middle of 2017, the BBC was forced by the government to publish some figures on high pay. This had nothing to do on the face of it with gender pay. And they were just under pressure from the political world to look at high pay levels because a lot of politicians felt that pay in the BBC was too high as far as they could see; at the top level. And so they were forced to publish these figures on high pay in 2017. I wasn't even focused on that.

I'd been doing this massive project on China's Belt and Road, which is China's push to really drive its influence throughout Asia and Europe. And so I'd been across Asia and Europe reporting on that. I wasn't really thinking about what was going on inside the BBC at all. And then the figures came out and a lot of women were really angry. I wasn't the first to get angry. When it was drawn to my attention that somehow I'd ended up being paid not much more than half of what the North America editor was being paid, at first, I was puzzled.

Because just to pull back for a moment, when I took up the China editor job, they begged me to do it. I was not very keen because it didn't suit my children at the time. They were very keen and they didn't have anyone else who could do that job, or so they said. And so they begged me to do that job, and I knew it would be a really tough gig. And I knew I would give it my all, and I knew I'd be good at it.

And so when I did that, I said to them, because I was also becoming more conscious at that point of my unease about gender things going on at senior levels in the BBC on-air, and I said to them, "If I'm going to do that job, I've got these three conditions." One was to spend some of the time in London so that I could actually spend time with the kids, who were teenagers at that point. And me and my ex were going to swap roles a bit, and he was going to be the lean in parent and I was going to lean into work on the other side of the world, but I wanted to do some work in London to come back and see them. And the other thing was I demanded equal pay. They said, the BBC, "Well, we're going to pay the same as the North America editor." And so I was really shocked then to discover three and a half years later that I was being paid not much more than half of the North America editor.

And the story built and built and there was a group of women who decided, "Enough's enough. We really need to get a grip on this and tell BBC management they need to sort it out." And I think it was that solidarity, the fact that there was a group that meant that there was a lot of group energy and a lot of group loyalty and a lot of determination that we were all going to put our shoulder to this wheel and push hard. And so in my case, they said initially, "Oops, there seems to have been a problem," but they didn't really say, "The problem is that you should be paid equally."

They basically said, "You should be paid a bit more. Here's a bit more." And by that point, I'd become very focused on the fact that we had a deep problem of bias and an unwillingness to deal with the way the bias got baked in and the ways that that could affect people throughout their careers. And so I wanted them to show their working. It's like, okay, so you're saying that now I'm worth this, so they offered me more money. It was very transactional. They offered me more money.

And I was like, where's the working out? Where's your evidence? So from an early stage, I decided to treat it as just another news story. One where you listen to the evidence and you weigh the evidence and you feed back your analysis. So they were treating it as a transaction, and I was treating it as a journalistic investigation. And those two are not ever going to come out at a happy place.

Despite changes in the law, why is the gender pay gap still so prevalent?

The question of why we still have such wide gender pay gaps is a very complex one. It's quite difficult to grapple with for governments or employers or employment judges.

In my view, we don't take it seriously enough as a society. If there's an air accident, we get the Air Accident Investigation Bureau to come and investigate the accident, and they will haul up an airline for anything that's gone wrong. But if there's an accident over unequal pay at work, it is for that individual underpaid woman to fix it herself. Which in my view is pretty crazy because it puts far too much weight on one individual to fix the system, and one individual can't fix the system.

So we have a lack of transparency. The law doesn't really work. Employers game it, and employers have got a lot of priorities to be fair to them. They've got a lot going on, and pay is about relativity, so think something go wrong here, which affects something over here. Unless you're really paying close attention, you can quite unconsciously as an employer get yourself into a pay problem. And then we still have unconscious biases about the roles of women and the roles of men in our society and in terms of caring.

And so caring duties for children and for elderly people are not shared equally. And indeed the law is not equal for women and men in terms of how much parent leave they're entitled to take and questions like that and expectations are different by employer. So I think the reason it endures as a problem is because we as a society are still not determined enough to fix it. And that is why I feel passionate about it and I feel concerned that women of my daughter's generation, all of our children's generation, they could get to the same point as me.

To be in their mid 50s and suddenly discover that they're being paid half the equivalent male, because we're still not putting our shoulder as a society into really dealing with this problem.

How difficult was it to challenge the BBC?

It was a very difficult fight – emotionally, legally, professionally. I was still fighting the Chinese Communist Party, which is getting ever tougher during this period. And I had a more than full-time job in China and then I had a more than full-time job fighting my own employer on these issues.

And the problem in a situation like this is like pay for large employers is a bit of a Jenga Tower, and it gets built in the case of the BBC over the course of a century, during which obviously women were not equal at the beginning. And then this Jenga Tower goes up and up and up and it's very fragile. And it doesn't like the light of day because sunlight being the best disinfectant, sunlight is also going to push the Jenga Tower over. It's the fear of management and management's in-house lawyers.

So this is not just about the BBC, this is about a lot of organisations where pay disparities and biases get built into the pay structure, and then they're really hard to remove. So I had a lot of sympathy with my bosses in facing what was a very difficult problem. And indeed, the other women around me also had sympathy for management, and we were trying to be cooperative and work out ways that we could help them get to an equal place, a better place, which was going to treat women fairly going forward. But they were really defensive and really unwilling to do that.

And so I think it made me feel very disappointed that this organisations , which let's face it, its values are truth telling, trust, accuracy, fairness. I've been a BBC journalist for more than 30 years and I've been a BBC journalist in China, which is a really tough environment in terms of censorship, and I know what free news, what real truth telling, news telling, what reporting should look like. And the fact that the BBC, in my view, was not prepared to do that in relation to itself, that was not acceptable to me.

And I couldn't be part of any solution which was hypocritical about that, because that would just have been a betrayal of everything I'd ever done in my career. So for me, unfortunately, I was boxed into a corner of fighting that fight to the last. I was the tiger who was pushed right into the corner, and I just had to fight and fight and fight to get out of that corner and to win. And I'm really relieved that I did win in the end, but I'm very conscious of the cost to myself emotionally of going through that and of the cost to other women who have to go through that.

What can society do to change the culture around gender bias?

I think changing societal expectations it's something that happens anyway. Obviously, women push and do incredibly well in roles that no one imagined they could have a century ago or even 50 years ago. So women change expectations by what they do, and that's the first thing. And then the second thing is that the people who are observing that in workplaces need to adjust those other systems of pay and progression to acknowledge that.

So for example, in my employer, in the BBC, there was a disconnect because the BBC was finally putting more women into positions of responsibility on-air and off-air, and yet it just wasn't paying them equally. So it's like you have a disconnect where women are clearly doing very competently the same jobs as men, and yet they have been paid and promoted less in some ways. So I think leadership is crucial. Good leadership within organisations that understands the societal, structural, historic, economic, political reasons for all of this and the reasons why it doesn't get fixed.

Because it's easy for people to think, oh, well, the law is there to ensure that there's equal pay for all. No, it's not. I've really looked hard at this because I had to for my own case. It is not there to protect you. You are there to use this small weapon of the law to protect yourself. You have to protect yourself. The law does not protect you.

And so that expectation that employers and employees have that, oh, it's fine because the law is there, I don't need to worry about it. That concerns me, because I think people are going to crunch up against a really nasty accident like I had due to their unawareness of their own responsibility for looking after their own equal pay and the closing of gender pay gaps more widely. It's all of our responsibility. So leadership, going back to that, at the top of organisation is to say, "Yeah, there is a problem in our society."

Two-thirds of gender pay gaps are unexplained across the economy. What is in those two-thirds? It's the sludge in the bottom of the pot when you can't... You take out all the legitimate reasons for why there might be a gender pay gap. And then you've got this big sludge in the bottom of the saucepan. And it's like, what is that? Actually, in my view, I don't have the proof because obviously unequal pay is illegal, so no employer's going to say, "Oh, well, I'm part of that two-thirds. My pay practice is a part of that two-thirds."

But in that two-thirds, I would say, is a lot of unequal pay. And it takes employers, leaders within organisations to really front up to that and say, "We're going to squeeze this out the system. It's been baked in for a century or more. We're going to squeeze it out." And how they do that is by looking at each cohort and saying, "Okay, we've got this man in this cohort. We've got this woman. Okay, there's this big difference in what we're paying them. Why is that?" And really interrogating their own pay decisions.

And there's a massive difference between employers who do that and employers who don't. There really is. And so I would advise all women, young women going into employment today to go look at the organisation. Look at the way that they talk about these issues, look at what they do, and look at the top table. Do they look like you? And how do they relate to that? Do they talk about having problems in this area which they're in the middle of trying to fix? And do they deal with integrity with those questions?

Really have a look. Read the gender pay gaps and look at who's being promoted. And don't work for bad employers or employers who are not going to treat women equally. In your 20s, young women, you're in a position of power, hopefully, because you're flexible enough to change employers. Hopefully, not always.

And so before you get into a position where you've got kids and you feel a bit tied down maybe and you feel you've got fewer choices for that period when you've got small kids and it's really hard to start moving about and feeling that you've got the flexibility to spend a lot of time investing in a job search, et cetera, et cetera. So while you're young, make sure you're being paid equally. Make sure you're working for a good employer. So leadership from employers I think is one huge thing.

But I think as individuals at every level of workplaces, we all have responsibilities on this. It's just amazing to me when I was facing this myself to see those people who stepped up and those people who chose to look away. There are literally people who would get out of a lift when they saw me coming in the BBC. It was just like, I don't blame them, but it's quite striking when someone gets out a lift to avoid you because they really don't want to have to think about this.

And so I think we can all choose to engage with big structural questions of our time, climate, race, gender. We can choose to engage or we can choose to avoid engaging, and gender is one of those. It's a challenge for all of us.


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