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Pay inequalities at the BBC - an interdisciplinary postfeminist analysis

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A recently published report has revealed huge discrepancies in the salaries of presenters at the BBC. The highest paid men earn far more than the highest paid women, and there appear to be significant salary differences even between men and women doing the same jobs. In response, more than 40 women who work for the BBC have sent an open letter of protest to the director general, Tony Hall.

This week's blog by Stephanie Taylor considers the BBC situation using a concept proposed in a recent academic article. The concept of a 'postfeminist sensibility' draws on the social psychological approaches of discourse analysis and critical discursive psychology. It is an example of the interdisciplinary academic work which is a feature of our new Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317).

The row over BBC salaries has attracted a lot of media attention, perhaps because it concerns (other) media workers. The situation can be seen as an example of the phenomenon of a 'postfeminist sensibility', discussed in a new academic journal article:

Rosalind Gill, Elisabeth K. Kelan and Christina M. Scharff (2017) 'A Postfeminist Sensibility at Work' Gender, Work and Organisation Vol. 24 No. 3 May 2017

This relatively new concept is also an example of interdisciplinary research which brings together ideas from social psychology with other disciplines, in this case, media studies, organisation studies and gender studies.

The authors of the article define a 'postfeminist sensibility' as an observable pattern that they have identified in different contexts. The pattern comprises 'discursive moves', such as arguments, and 'repertoires' or groups of ideas, related to gender inequalities in workplaces. In a variety of work situations, the authors found that similar explanations are presented to justify or gloss over gender inequalities. The pattern has four parts.

The first part is 'the allocation of gender inequalities to the past' (Gill et al., 2017, p.232). This occurs when people talk about inequalities as part of history, as if they are not relevant to working life today, even when they are observably part of that life. At the BBC, this can be seen in the director general's letter to the women presenters. He claims that the problem of unequal pay is already being addressed – the only issue, apparently, is that the change is happening too slowly, so the priority now is to 'accelerate' the equalising which is underway. Hall is presenting a progress narrative, as if improvement over time is inevitable. Interestingly, the women presenters also invoke the past, criticising the pay gap on the grounds that we live in an 'age of equality'. This, too, suggests that the pay gap is an unfortunate hangover from an earlier historical period. There is agreement that it has no place in today's world. [But in response we might ask: Really? Are inequalities steadily closing? Is progress inevitable, or might inequalities be an all too normal aspect of contemporary life, and perhaps even getting worse?]

The second part of the pattern of a 'postfeminist sensibility' is that gender inequalities are allocated to 'other countries and contexts' (p.232). In this situation, there is indignation that the inequalities have been revealed at the BBC. BBC women presenters point out that they have campaigned against the gender pay gap for years. They assert that they love the BBC and what it stands for. This draws a line between 'them' (other people, who tolerate inequality) and 'us' (enlightened civilised people who don't). It's almost as if the unequal pay is a mistake which has been exposed and of course must now be corrected! [But what are the 'other' contexts where inequalities would seem less surprising? Perhaps a more constructive line of investigation would be to look for similarities between those other contexts and the BBC.]

The third part of the pattern is that women are portrayed as 'the advantaged sex'. In the BBC situation, this appears, for example, in a protest from a male actor. He says that men need to receive higher salaries in order to support their wives and children. His argument of course rests on the assumption that women are never breadwinners, supporting their own families and partners (male or female). It also implies that childcare is a woman's task and responsibility. [No comment... sigh]

The fourth and final part of the pattern of a 'postfeminist sensibility’ is what the article's authors call 'acceptance of the status quo' (p.232). This appears, for example, in references to 'just' how things are, or in no reference at all, because a feature of the current situation seems inescapably obvious – as if the world can never change. Some of the points taken for granted in the BBC situation are that presenters are not paid on a scale, according to their roles (like nurses, teachers, other public service workers...) but instead are rewarded as individuals, and that every salary to have been revealed is a huge multiple of the National Minimum Wage (about £14,600 p.a.) or even the National Living Wage (about £15,600). You can probably think of others.

The discussion could continue but hopefully it has shown how the concept of  'postfeminist sensibility' is useful as a lens for viewing a situation of gender inequality. You might like to think about it in relation to other situations, or read the full article.

The first author of the article, Rosalind Gill, discusses postfeminism in an interview on our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). The module also covers discourse analysis and critical discursive psychology as research approaches.

To learn more about the module Advancing social psychology (DD317), you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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