As word trickled through the BBC that a review of on-air pay commissioned by the corporation had found no evidence of gender bias on Tuesday morning, the WhatsApp groups and email threads of BBC women began to vibrate with increasing urgency.
One on-air insider said: “BBC women have zero faith [in the report]. That’s certainly the general mood within the sisterhood this morning.”
The BBC Women group, made up of more than 170 presenters and producers including Jane Garvey, Mishal Husain and Victoria Derbyshire, had already rebuked the BBC for not consulting the women involved.
But after it dismissed the principal accusation that many women are illegally being paid less than their male counterparts to do the same job, the criticism grew sharper, with key figures suggesting the limited scope of the report rendered its findings meaningless.
Garvey, a Woman’s Hour presenter, said: “At the risk of sounding cynical, it’s really hard to not reach the conclusion that they commissioned the report they wanted and it’s provided the result that they wanted.”
In a statement, the group criticised the decision to only look at on-air news employees, which excluded many high earners, and stressed the need for “swift and meaningful” change for women in all roles.
“The only mention of equal pay in the letter of engagement with PwC refers to an ‘assessment of equal pay risks’,” it said.
Others went further, arguing that PricewaterhouseCoopers’ controversial decision to identify 98 men and 90 women who could get a pay rise would only entrench inequality.
BBC Women provided 14 examples of women who described frustrating battles with managers over pay discrimination. “I have co-presented with a male colleague for many years … I estimate he’s paid around double what I earn for doing the same job,” said one of the unnamed women in a typical submission. “I raised the equal pay issue many times over the years, but nothing was done.”
One BBC presenter, who called the proposals a “retrofit” for an existing system, told the Guardian: “I think they have scored a massive own goal and it’s going to make it even more difficult for women to unpick the problem … Maybe that’s what they wanted.
“It’s the same old bollocks, the same old fudge. I feel more depressed about it than at the start of the day. I feel I have more fighting to do, not less.”
Tensions have been simmering at the corporation since the gulf in earnings between male and female top talent was exposed last summer.
One woman in a senior off-air role said assurances given by Tony Hall, the director general, on Tuesday that the organisation was “determined to get it right” had left many cold.
“It sounded so fantastic at the start […] but if you look at what is underneath that, there is nothing. It is emperor’s new clothes,” she said.
Other attempts to tackle inequality and take the sting out of the story, such as a proposed £320,000 cap on news presenters’ salaries and the decision of six high-profile male presenters, including John Humphrys, to take a pay cut, were dismissed as diversionary tactics.
Garvey said: “This has never been about men taking pay cuts. It’s about women earning several thousand pounds less than their male colleagues every year for doing exactly the same job. It may not be glamorous, but over a lifetime that makes a colossal difference.”
Women within the corporation show little sign of being blown off course. They described formal and informal groups where stories, salaries and tactics were discussed. Female employees are also looking to their male colleagues to improve transparency in the organisation, with female staff looking for a male “buddy” doing the same job who is willing to speak to HR about pay discrepancy.
Some women who have been raising issues around equal pay since the 1980s were delighted to have new recruits and new tools to address the problem, said one BBC Women member. “What’s been brilliant over the past year or so is that frankly, social media has allowed us to wage a collective battle, which tactically speaking would have been extraordinarily difficult in the past,” she said.
The actions of Carrie Gracie, who resigned as China editor in protest against unequal remuneration after saying she could not collude in unlawful pay discrimination, are hailed as those of a hero, and staff spoke of appreciating high-profile names speaking out. Several also mentioned a solidarity between off-air lower profile employees and on-air household names.
One presenter said: “By constantly referring to ‘on-air’ talent, the BBC is gambling that the public has no patience for people who earn large salaries.
“But there are hundreds of low-paid producers who are deeply affected, but of course they haven’t been included in [the] PwC audit.”
A news producer said: “Management’s focus on on-air is convenient because it makes it about a small group. There is a perception that they are ignoring us because we can’t make the same kind of noise.”
Gender equality campaigners also found flaws with the report.
“Paying men more than women @BBC is systemic discrimination not an ‘anomaly’. PWC report pointless. Numbers speak for themselves,” tweeted the Labour MP Harriet Harman.
Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said it left many questions unanswered.
“We cannot see how the BBC can conclude that there is ‘no gender bias’ in the face of shocking stories from individual women, and what looks like large pay differences within jobs that the report does not explain,” she said.
Many of the women the Guardian spoke to would only speak on condition of anonymity, with the majority unwilling to be seen as “bashing” an organisation they love. “It doesn’t have to be a ‘bash Auntie’ thing to say let’s do better,” said one.
Despite reservations, Garvey said women had pulled together and spoken out in the hope that those in other organisations would also take action.
“If it’s happening here, it’s happening everywhere, and people need to know that,” she said. “If it’s like this at the BBC, then God help everywhere else.”
A senior off-air employee in news said that despite the disappointment, women were still hopeful things would change, and that they would not stop fighting.
“If we don’t get a watershed moment we will all just carry on. We’ve done that for years and we’re not going to give up just because the zeitgeist moves on.”