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Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC
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Inequality in Promotion

As early as 1926, Reith had decreed that Women Assistants should rank on the same footing as men and be as eligible as men for promotion.[1] But while women did rise through the BBC ranks, they were generally not promoted as quickly or as highly as men. Unlike teaching or the Civil Service, the BBC had no set paths for promotion. Rather, longevity of service, increased experience and good performance saw an individual rise through their grade until they reached the ‘roof’, at which point they could be considered for promotion to the next. This meant that subjectivity rather than a defined principle was at the heart of the process. In the same vein, while men were often fast-tracked by management to positions of authority, this was exceedingly rare for women, Hilda Matheson the only example. The fact that men were also geographically more mobile than women was also advantageous to their careers. For example, the position of Station Director, which was never held by a woman, was seen as a stepping stone to management responsibility at Head Office.[2] There was awareness of the limitations in opportunities for women’s advancement, for instance, in 1929 it was specifically noted at Control Board that there was a tendency to consider men over women for promotion.[3] However, this did not preclude a Control Board agreement in 1932 ‘to get a half a dozen first-class men who would be posted in various changing places in Head Office and the provinces to learn the business’.[4] The creation of high-flying career opportunities for women was never considered.

Yet it appears that BBC women rarely sought out opportunities for advancement or looked to move into other areas of work. Winifred Holtby’s ‘inferiority complex’ theory may have been at play here with women content to remain in jobs they knew well and which they were good at. Annual reports only occasionally indicate frustration with their roles. There was also the issue of loyalty. For instance, Margaret Hope Simpson, a graduate of Newnham, joined the BBC in 1931. She was briefly Hilda Matheson’s secretary but from 1932 until 1943, she was secretary to Cecil Graves, staying with him as he progressed from Empire Services Director to Controller (Programmes) to Deputy Director General and ultimately Director General. Graves was aware that his reluctance to lose Hope Simpson was potentially holding back her career. It was only when he retired on ill-health in 1943 that she eventually moved on (she retired in 1964, an executive in Overseas Programme Planning). Mary Agnes Hamilton, writing specifically about the BBC, noted of the private secretary that ‘the more useful she is, the less does her chief want to part with her’.[5] The one position that appears to have acted as a stepping-stone was that of Children’s Hour Organiser, with a number of women moving into more senior posts. The majority of the BBC’s salaried women, though, had linear careers and remained broadly in the same department and often in the same role for the entirety of their career with the Corporation. This had a limiting effect on how far within the BBC they could go.[6]

  • [1] BBC/WAC:R49/940: Women Assistants, 1926, Reith to All Station Directors, 30April 1926.
  • [2] For example, Nicolls and Clarke had been Station Directors.
  • [3] BBC/WAC:R3/3/5: Control Board Minutes, 26 March 1929.
  • [4] Control Board Minutes, 15 November 1932.
  • [5] Mary Agnes Hamilton (1944) Remembering my Good Friends (London: JonathanCape) p. 283.
  • [6] Of the 128 women included in Salary Information only 19 had worked in more thanone area of work during the interwar years and only a handful in more than two.
 
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