In January, 2018, as I was preparing to go on maternity leave, BBC journalist Carrie Gracie announced that she was quitting her job as China editor.
The previous summer, the BBC was forced to reveal the salary ranges of its top talent. Of the 96 names released, just a third were women, only 10 were people of colour, and the top seven earners were all men. Through that disclosure, Ms. Gracie learned that the two male international editors were making at least 50 per cent more than what she and her female colleague were earning.
“For the first time, women saw hard evidence of what they’d long suspected – that they are not being valued equally,” Ms. Gracie wrote in an open letter posted on her blog. “For BBC women, this is not just a matter of one year’s salary or two. Taking into account disadvantageous contracts and pension entitlements, it is a gulf that will last a lifetime.”
Ms. Gracie wrote that since the release, up to 200 women at the network had filed pay complaints, but the BBC maintained there was no pay discrimination. “Can we all be wrong?” she asked.
News of Ms. Gracie’s resignation came three months into the #MeToo movement, when the conversation was beginning to evolve beyond sexual violence to a broader discussion about gender inequity. Was it really surprising that workplace sexual harassment was still a problem, given so many employers openly communicate that the men on staff are more important than the women? Companies do this not just through salaries, promotions and leadership choices, but also through decisions such as who gets the plum assignments versus who gets stuck doing thankless administrative tasks.
It was against this backdrop, in my final weeks before maternity leave, as I was consumed with thoughts about how motherhood affects women’s careers, that I pitched my editors a new investigation: I wanted to look at women at work.
You’ve probably heard women make 87 cents for every dollar a man makes. But this figure – the most commonly cited wage-gap statistic – is the average hourly rate for all men versus all women in the labour force. I wanted to drill down to a more specific level, to the question I think a lot of women have: Is the guy one cubicle over, doing the same job, making more money?
The problem with trying to investigate something like this is I would need access to companies’ internal pay documents – and salaries are generally a secret. I briefly brainstormed with some colleagues about whether we could try to obtain some records through sources, but then I remembered there actually is a big portion of the work force whose pay data is available.
High-earning public sector employees in most provinces are subject to Sunshine Laws, meaning once a year, their name, compensation and often their job title gets released. These aren’t just core civil servants. Schools, universities, publicly owned corporations, cultural institutions, hospitals, police services, some not-for-profits – they’re all part of the public sector. If we collected all of this data and then figured out a way to use the gender probability of first names to identify the men and the women, we could compare the compensation of those in the same job.
The project would have limitations. The dataset would only capture six-figure earners, so we’d be missing a huge portion of the public-sector work force. We also realized early on we were not going to be able to analyze race because names are not a reliable indicator of a person’s ethnicity. (We decided we would manually contact a portion of senior employees to add this layer.) It also wasn’t clear that we were even going to find much of a pay gap in the public sector, given taxpayer-funded entities are often unionized and face significant scrutiny. Still, we figured we’d give it a try.
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When I came back from leave that September, a small team of us got to work. As so often happens, we thought we were looking into one thing, but the reporting took us in new directions.
As the documents started coming in, it was obvious pay was still a problem, especially in certain fields and in senior positions. But what really stood out was the overall lack of women. At entity after entity, women were dramatically outnumbered. In the higher salary bands, it wasn’t unusual to see three times more men. And while it’s well known women are underrepresented at the helm of organizations, we noticed they also seemed to be underrepresented in other management roles, like as vice-presidents, directors, managers and supervisors.
The wage gap was a problem, no question. But the term seemed inadequate in describing what we were seeing.
This was a power gap.
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