The BBC announced on 26 January that six of its biggest, household-name male presenters had agreed to take pay cuts to help close the broadcaster’s notorious gender pay gap.

According to the organisation, News at Ten anchor Huw Edwards, Today curmudgeon John Humphrys, his presenting colleague Nick Robinson, radio stalwarts Nicky Campbell and Jeremy Vine, plus North America editor Jon Sopel, had all consented to pay reductions with immediate effect.

For Humphrys and Sopel, this is a particularly interesting development, considering that the pair had been embroiled in a PR mess over the gender pay divide in early January, after they were caught making light of the issue on a hot mic. Their leaked exchange followed former China editor Carrie Gracie’s decision to step down from her role in protest at the broadcaster’s intransigence on the glaring gulf between male and female salaries.

Gracie had concluded that to remain in her China role would have been to “collude in unlawful discrimination”. Yet the Humphrys-Sopel audio showed that the seriousness with which Gracie approached the issue was by no means universally shared among her BBC colleagues. Indeed, in the audio clip, Humphrys opens his jocular exchange with Sopel by asking, “How much of your salary you are prepared to hand over to Carrie Gracie?”

In a statement about the pay cuts, the BBC said: “These are great journalists and presenters, who have a real connection with the audience. We are proud to have them working at the BBC. The final details of some of these changes are still being discussed, and there are further conversations that the BBC will have with others in due course.”

Given the outcry over the Humphrys-Sopel clip, many will no doubt see the BBC’s move as a cosmetic exercise designed to ameliorate public opinion – but the hint that other stars are about to follow suit indicates that a sincere effort is underway. So, is the BBC’s course of action on the right track? And what can other organisations learn from it?

“There’s the distinct whiff of a zero-sum game about this,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “The BBC’s thinking seems to imply that in order to give the perception that female staff are earning more, their male counterparts must earn less.”

Cooper explains: “If this were a standard benchmarking exercise designed to pin down the average wage that a TV or radio presenter should earn – and I know this may be difficult for the BBC because of how it’s funded, but I’m sure that an HR exec there could apply the necessary maths – then gender wouldn’t be factored into the description at all. It would be an analysis of the profession as a whole – not the profession as two, opposed factions.

“Following such an exercise, the BBC would be able to approach John Humphrys and inform him that, compared to the average wage that’s being earned by presenters who fulfil similar functions to him, he is overpaid. So the deciding factor would end up being empirical financial data, rather than the adversarial, gender-based determinant that lies at the heart of the decision involving these six presenters.”

She adds: “What the BBC have done here is to make this almost ridiculously personal. What they really ought to do is depersonalise it: ‘These people over here are overpaid; those people over there are underpaid. We’re not taking salary percentages from one group to give to the other. What we’re actually doing, across the board, is ensuring that our salaries are in line.’ Leave gender out of the equation. The focus on gender as the overarching reason why pay cuts are happening only risks deepening factional sentiment on each side.

“So, in answer to the headline question – yes, organisations could persuade male employees to take pay cuts. But it’s how they tackle it that really counts.”

For further thoughts on dealing with conflict in the workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of John Humphrys courtesy of the BBC Radio 4 website