How to confront your boss about the gender pay gap, by a journalist who it did it live on the air

Talking points.
Talking points.
Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville
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It’s not easy to confront your boss over a contentious issue. And what’s more contentious than how much less you’re paid than your male colleagues? Now imagine having that debate live on national radio.

That’s the situation BBC Radio 4 presenter Mishal Husain found herself in yesterday, when she interviewed her boss about the dramatic pay gap recently revealed at the British broadcaster. Not only do the 96 highest paid employees at the BBC collectively earn a whopping £31.9 million ($41.4 million) a year, but the majority of those in the top-earning category are men. Women are notably underpaid compared to their colleagues in similar roles.

Husain was one of those women. Her colleague John Humphrys, for instance, was listed in the report, prepared by the BBC, as earning £400,000 ($517,820) more than her a year. You can listen to her interview with BBC director Tony Hall about the issue on the popular breakfast show Radio 4 at this link, starting at 1:32:50 min.  

Husain’s interview can teach us a thing or two about how to confront thorny issues with someone senior at work. And some of her tactics mirror advice given by communications experts like Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations and Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate. Here’s how:

Identify a shared goal and validate it

If you have to confront your superior about something you know will be contentious, aim to make your point and provide context clearly, so that you’re not seen as some uppity underling but as a colleague working towards shared interests. By clearly stating the idea, opinion, or proposal that you are querying, you will have a strong foundation to build upon for the discussion. Husain began the interview by providing context to her question, which was framed succinctly and directly. “You have acknowledged that the figures reveal a gender pay gap,” she said to Hall. “Two-thirds of the highest earning presenters are men. How are you going to address the pay gap?”

Stay calm

During the conversation, aim to keep the pace slow and your tone even. If you appear anxious, the person on the other side gets a mixed message. Confidence sends a clear message to your superior that you know what you want. When Hall didn’t answer her question as clearly as she’d liked, Husain calmly called him out: [That’s] a different point to the point I put to you about the pay gap,” she said.

Don’t make judgments

Watch your language carefully. Don’t say things like “short-sighted,” “foolish,” or “hasty.” Instead, cut out all the adjectives and state the facts so you minimize the risk of being misinterpreted. Stay neutral and focused to encourage further discussion, not stop it in its tracks. When Hall began talking about how difficult it was to manage the wage bill given funding was stagnant, Husain brought the conversation back to the question at hand, instead of getting frustrated: “I’m not sure what that means, in terms of managing the gender pay gap,” she said. “Does that mean you’re going to be asking the men to take a pay cut?”

Grenny and Weeks also advise people to discuss issues in private, and to not overplay the risks of speaking up. Husain was fulfilling her mandate as a BBC reporter by discussing these issues publicly—but as a trained professional interviewer, she gave us some helpful tips along the way.

Correction: An earlier version of this article listed John Humphrys as earning £200,000 more than Mishal Husain instead of £400,000 more.