In the wake of stiff resistance, the BBC has finally published long-awaited data on the salaries of its top-earning staff above the £150k-per-year mark. As expected, the information reveals some startling evidence of the gender pay gap – a malaise that continues to plague organisations of all kinds.

In two of the most glaring examples, newscaster Huw Edwards’ annual pay of between £550k and £599k massively outweighs his colleague Fiona Bruce’s £350k to £399k, while sports anchor Gary Lineker’s £1.75 million to £1.79m utterly trounces fellow presenter Claire Balding’s £150k to £199k. In the case of each gap, the job that the female performs is substantially similar to that tackled by the male.

While the publication of the data has aroused significant concern over pay privacy, it has nonetheless lit up an issue that organisations too often sweep under the carpet.

In a statement, Durham University Business School’s professor of Organisation Studies Mark Learmonth said: “The BBC pay row is a vivid illustration of a phenomenon that social scientists have been going on about for years: how men are over-valued and women undervalued, even when they do exactly the same thing.”

He added: “We rarely examine these prejudices, but men have come to be culturally associated much more strongly than women with what is ‘prestigious’, ‘deep’ and ‘important’. These associations are regularly dismissed – especially by powerful men. But if the BBC controversy has contributed something positive, it is to show even more convincingly that these factors do operate with substantive and unfair effects.”

What can shake organisations out of this troubling pattern?

“The social ranking of men over women that Learmonth points to has been a hugely visible narrative recently,” says The Institute of Leadership and Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “Just look at the gender-bias debate that around the scheduling of Centre Court matches at Wimbledon – which, ironically, required the contribution of Andy Murray for the issue to gain due prominence in the media. Even though women receive equal prize money in the tournament, they are still being undermined on the ‘prestige’ side of the equation, which certainly chimes with Learmonth’s comments.

“One really interesting development in sports at the moment is the rise of women’s cricket, and how it’s pulling in huge crowds. A few days ago, it even picked up coverage in the New York Times, which strikes me as a breakthrough all by itself. In that article, the English game’s director Clare Connor says that when she grew up, all her role models were men – but girls who are going to women’s cricket matches now feel that they’ve got just as much right, and just as much opportunity, to be involved as their brothers. This trend is hugely significant, and shows that the women’s game is approaching equivalence with the men’s.”

Organisations, Cooper notes, have to draw lessons from this. “You’re not going to get that sort of step change without taking it seriously and investing in it,” she says. “Many leaders just assume that their recruiting practices are fair and open, and that they’re getting the best people for the job, without really understanding whether they’re using outmoded paradigms to describe ‘best’ – or whether they’re associating ‘best’ with what have traditionally been defined as male characteristics. As long as that assumption persists, then the entrenched and endemic prejudice that professor Learmonth identifies will continue.”

Cooper explains: “The business case for diversity is strong: companies with more diverse boards are certainly more innovative. And it makes sense that if you have a wider approach to your talent pool, you’re going to get better talent out of it. If you have difference, you’re going to arrive at more unusual and innovative solutions to problems. Judging leaders and managers upon how they promote diversity doesn’t have to relate to hard targets – it can relate to any tangible, proactive steps they are taking towards improvement.”

The challenge, she adds, is cutting through ingrained complacency. “If the systems and processes that we have in place were fair and equitable,” she points out, “we wouldn’t be seeing these absolute discrepancies in rewards for men and women on such a massive scale. We wouldn’t be seeing so few women represented in senior positions; we wouldn’t be seeing so few female heads of multi-academy trusts when the teaching profession is dominated by females. So the evidence that something is wrong is plain for all to see. The evidence that we’re doing something about it is not, and that’s the challenge.”

For thoughts on how to avoid unfair bias in decision making, check out this learning item from the Institute

Image of BBC signage courtesy of Claudio Divizia, via Shutterstock