The gender pay gap and the media's pursuit of balance

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 10 April 2018 in Comment

A radio discussion on the gender pay gap raises questions over the media's approach to impartiality

Image credit: Pixababy

Sometimes it’s tempting to wish there was an annual conference for the people accusing the BBC of bias, where they had to agree about how. They could meet up and lay out their accusations – it’s too left-wing, too right-wing, too pro-Israel, too pro-Palestine, it’s undermining Brexit and it’s a Eurosceptic Brexit cheerleader – and if the crowd can’t agree then they can’t leave the room.

Balance is critical in a whole range of activities in life, as anyone who has ever watched a cat fall off a wardrobe can testify, but that doesn’t mean there’s a conspiracy branching out through the BBC. If anything, it’s actually the corporation’s pursuit of balance that gets it into trouble. Just look at its apology, issued last year, for inviting Lord Lawson on Radio Four – as a ‘dissenting voice’ – to claim that global temperatures have not risen in the past decade, without challenging him.

Climate change is probably the most obvious example of the media doing a disservice to the public by suggesting there are two, equally valid sides to a story. With 97 per cent of climate scientists agreeing that the global climate is changing because of human activity, the idea you can put a climate scientist up against a climate denier looks ludicrous – the equivalent of running a segment on architecture and pitting a city planner against someone who refuses to accept that buildings exist.

Yet it happens again and again, with Radio Four last week providing Jordan Peterson – a Canadian psychologist with strong, but unqualified views on structural sexism – with a platform to air his opinions on the gender pay gap.

In these situations, it’s worth asking why the topic was being discussed. Well, in this case, it’s because the deadline for businesses to publish data on the gender pay gap was looming. Fair enough.

Second, who had been invited to discuss it? For Radio Four, it was Baroness Williams, the UK’s Minister for Equalities. Again, fair enough. But, rather than finding an academic specialising in gender politics, or Williams’ shadow equivalent, the show decided to ‘balance’ her views with Peterson’s, creating the impression we were hearing from two experts, with different views regarding an issue on which there’s no widespread agreement.

Except that’s not true – there is widespread agreement – and by putting them on in the same slot, and allowing Peterson to paint the issue as a misunderstanding of statistics, they created a false equivalence. Even Peterson’s introduction was revealing, with the psychologist welcomed on air for “causing quite a splash” with his views on gender – a qualification better suited to boring strangers in a pub than informing a discussion on national radio.

Because let’s be clear, there is either a gender pay gap or there isn’t, and it turns out there is. Every major political party agrees on that. Even Theresa May, not exactly beloved by feminist groups, has described the gap – sitting at around 18 per cent – as a “burning injustice”.

It’s a topic which is easily misrepresented, particularly when commentators conflate the gap with unequal pay. Ryanair defended the fact that median hourly pay among its UK staff is 72 per cent lower for women than men by pointing out that the majority of its pilots are male, while women make up more of its cabin staff – an argument which basically amounts to saying the company pays men more than women because it gives men more highly paid jobs.

Others point to the idea that women are more likely to work part-time, while steadfastly refusing to examine the reasons for that.

Of course, none of that means there isn’t a debate to be had about the causes of the pay gap, or what to do about it, but it does mean that putting two people on radio to debate its existence is inherently misleading. In bending over backwards to avoid accusations of bias, Radio Four stumbled off balance.

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