Staring into the gender chasm at the BBC

Well, well, staggering gender and racial inequality at the Beeb? Who could possibly have thought otherwise?

If you’ve grown up in this country, you’ve imbibed the BBC – along with the NHS, the Royal Family, and other quintessentially British institutions – with your breast milk. Even if, like me, part or all of your childhood was spent thousands of miles away, in a country under British jurisdiction, if you are of a particular generation, it’s likely that the World Service would have been your main source of world news. I can still hear the upbeat militaristic refrain which preceded the pips before the 8 o’clock news as my father shaved in front of the mirror using a razor our in our bungalow in Lagos, Nigeria. It is 1969. That memory endures in me.

Like it or loathe it, the BBC – with all its merits and its flaws – is our blood; despite the rise of social media and the proliferation of other sources of news, education and entertainment – we are still steeped in its outputs: broadcasts, jingles, refrains and ethos – all jumble up to create the deep impression the institution still has upon our society, and many of us as individuals.

The BBC is steeped in its history too – which is a history of an empire built upon social (class), racial and – yes – sexual inequality. Why should it be surprising that, at its heart, the BBC is still institutionally sexist and racist?

Now, let’s take a pause. Did I just level an accusation? Racist, sexist…? No. I do not consider the terms institutionally racist or sexist an accusation. I consider them a description. Let’s look at the most influential definition of institutional exclusion in the UK in our era, that of institutional racism in the MacPherson report in 1999 on the Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence:

‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping.’

If we take the term ‘service’ in this definition to include ‘employment services’, the recent revelations about the ‘service’ the BBC provides to its female and BAME workforce are damning – and, more importantly, strong evidence that the BBC is, by the spirit of this definition, both institutionally sexist and racist. Unequal pay is not the main cause of discrimination and inequality – though of course it has a contributory role: it is the result of discrimination and inequality – the surfaced part of a massive iceberg of submerged prejudices, assumptions, stereotypes, micro-aggressions, insults and omissions. Money, in our society, is symbolic of many things, including the degree to which we value things and people. When we look at how much we pay different people in different professions, the results are eye-watering. Compare the financial rewards for caring for children, older people or vulnerable adults, or cleaning hospital wards for example – arguably some of the most important types of work in any civilised society – with those for scoring Premier League goals or cutting a top ten selling single – arguably work that enriches the lives of many people, but does not have the same human, social or personal impact.

At the BBC the gender pay gap is eye-watering – for example, Clare Balding, the very popular & ubiquitous sports presenter, who also does faith-based and rambling programmes on BBC radio, received aboutone tenth of Gary Lineker’s pay, earning £150,999–£199,999 compared with his £1.75m–£1.79m. These shocking figures are all about what styles as well as what types of people are valued in the culture of the organisation: what ‘authoritative’, ‘influential’, ‘ground-breaking’, ‘pioneering’, ‘impressive’, ‘wise’, ‘informed’, etc look and sound like. Clearly, white women and BAME people of both sexes do not yet measure up to these descriptors in the culture of the BBC to anything like the extent that white (and possible middle class, non-disabled and heterosexual) men do. It’s styles and it’s also types of people. And it’s how the – gender segmented, and highly unequal – market in employment operates.

Some of the exclusion and discrimination in the culture of the Beeb may be conscious and deliberate – a witting attempt to protect the white middle class older ‘boys’ club’. But we know that cultures mostly function at an unconscious level – through millions upon millions of fine grain interactions minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, contained in which is the manifestation of our deep, shared status-charged assumptions, and our norms. Hence the carefully positioned used of the word ‘unwitting’ in the MacPherson definition. We sleep walk in our world of normative interactions: what jokes are current, what put-downs are acceptable, whose hand we shake, for whom we make tea, who makes the tea, whose eyes we seek contact with, whom we avoid or never talk to, with whom we ‘huddle’ with in a crisis, with whom we celebrate in a triumph, whose name we don’t even know or can’t pronounce, whose work we’ve never bothered to understand, whose hand we shake, who we have after-hours drinks with, who we play golf or drink coffee with, who we look to for an authoritative – or a second – opinion, to whom we go for advice, with whom we share our latest plan or new idea, who we see as sexually available or fair game, who we think should do us a favour before we pay attention to them, to whom we want to suck up… this is the stuff of the submerged part of the iceberg, shot through with hidden hierarchies and status games, these fine grain elements betray underlying patterns which result in gross surfaced inequality.

As Anne McElvoy said on the Today programme on Radio 4 today – it’s no good just focusing on pay – which is an effect of institutional exclusion and discrimination – you have to go after the causes. In order to do so, you have to re-programme the unconscious part of the institutional brain. In individuals, we know that the unconscious brain drives 80-90% of our behaviour; most what drives the unconscious brain is learned, and because of the brain’s plasticity, can be unlearned. However – and here’s the rub – the job of reprogramming in order to change a habit pattern or addiction is not easy! It requires skill, patience and diligent & repeated application. However, the powerful combination of neuroscience and psychology is beginning to throw up really useful pointers as to how that can be achieved.

I believe we should treat organisations in the same way – institutional exclusion is like a really harmful habit pattern, or even addiction, which is daily reinforced through thousands upon thousands of thoughts, utterances and actions, most of them unconscious. And, as with any addiction, nothing short of a life-changing process of facing the true extent of the problem, followed by treatment/practice, rehabilitation and recovery will solve this problem – that’s the bad news. There’s no quick fix for this problem. But the good news is that it can be done. Being forced to reveal the extent of the trouble the BBC is in is actually a massive first step forward in addressing the damage that racism and sexism have wrought in the institution. Now for the real work to begin.