The Observer view on persisting gender inequality| Observer editorial | Opinion


Congratulations to Lady Hale. On Friday, she became the first woman to be appointed president of the UK supreme court. So now we have 12 supreme court justices, two of whom are female. In October, a study of judicial systems by the Council of Europe indicated that Britain has one of the lowest proportions of female judges. As a model of diversity, the judiciary still has a long way to go before the exceptions – in this case, the hugely talented Hale – become the rule.

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Hale has rightly criticised her profession as “not only mainly male, overwhelmingly white, but also largely the product of a limited range of educational institutions and social backgrounds”. She correctly points out that “excellence matters, but so does diversity of expertise”.

At last year’s Conservative party conference, Liz Truss, then justice secretary, told the party faithful that only one in seven QCs was female, and that one in 10 judges came from an ethnic minority background. “This is modern Britain,” she said. “We can do better.”

A brief glance elsewhere at the upper echelons of political and institutional power, however, suggests “better” may already be here. In Theresa May, we have our second female prime minister; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have female leaders; Cressida Dick is chief of the Metropolitan police.

However, while women are rising in the ranks in all professions, at the top, in every sphere, they remain a minority, an isolated femocracy. Inequality is better camouflaged today than 10 or 20 years ago, but it’s still rampant. This state of affairs was flagged up last week by the revelation regarding the pay differences among the BBC’s star presenters.

Many of us licence-fee payers are perturbed not only by the grossly inflated sums paid to some who wouldn’t attract a fraction of the money in commercial radio, but also at the gap between men and women performing similar roles – Newsnight’s Evan Davis and Emily Maitlis for example – revealing an unjust and inexplicable male premium. The BBC was reluctant to disclose the salaries of those earning above £150,000. Now, 10 leading female broadcasters are considering taking the squirming BBC, allegedly an equal opportunities employer, to court.

A lesson has emerged from last week. Legislation to tackle discrimination is weak, hence the continuing male-female pay gap, but marry it with greater institutional transparency and immediately there is a powerful lever for greater equity.

Currently, at the BBC, we are witnessing the anger of the affluent, but a principle is also involved that should concern us all.

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