Olenka Frienkel and the BBC's discrimination against older women

Last week, Olenka Frenkiel—a long-tenured BBC journalist—accused the corporation of ageism and sexism. Upon leaving the BBC, she refused to sign any “derogatory statement restrictions” which would have barred her from discussing any discrimination she experienced while working there. Instead, she wrote a scathing op-ed in the Guardian newspaper, where she claimed that ageism and sexism remained serious issues at the BBC.

Frienkel, now 59, joins an expanding group of female journalists who have criticised the BBC, and television broadcasting more generally, for its explicit and implicit discrimination against older women. Selina Scott, then 57, was awarded £250,000 after she sued Channel 5 for age discrimination in 2008. Anna Ford, 62, left the BBC in 2006, claiming she had been cast aside because of her age. Upon being made redundant by the BBC in 2011, Miriam O’Reilly fought the BBC and won, a six-figure award from the Employment Tribunal for age and sex discrimination.

Ageism and sexism are endemic in broadcasting: 82% out of all the over-50s journalists appearing on screen for the BBC are men, according to a report compiled by the Older Women’s Commission. Across all major broadcasters—BBC, Sky, ITN, and Channel 5—women over 50 account for just 5% (26 out of 481) of regular on-screen presenters of all ages and both sexes.

Having represented many women in discrimination claims, we know that Frenkiel’s story is common. It's a classic example of the often subtle, but deeply pernicious, ways older women are discriminated against in the workplace. The same thing happens in a huge range of fields and industries, including law, finance and engineering. It extends all the way to the higher echelons of business: women still account for only 20% of board members of FTSE 100 companies. 

After 30 years, almost none of Frenkiel’s female contemporaries remained at the BBC. Meanwhile, her male counterparts were thriving. No more films were being commissioned from her and she struggled to get assignments. She tried pitching ideas to a wider array of departments, but to little avail. Her managers failed to appraise her for three years. Shockingly, the HR department had no record of her, despite having worked for the BBC for three decades.

Then the BBC decided it was time for her to go. Frenkiel claimed she had been starved of work; her superiors claimed she was unproductive. She tried to get more assignments; then she was perceived as not just unproductive, but also difficult, aggressive, and unpleasant. The BBC then tried to bar her from speaking about her negative experiences with them. Frenkiel would not sign the gagging order, claiming, “It is dishonest for the BBC to claim to have changed while continuing discriminatory policies and then demanding victims sign gagging clauses.”

As a public institution with a duty to all license payers, we need to hold the BBC to a high standard. Frenkiel noted the irony that presenters on BBC's Today programme were railing against the use of gagging clauses by NHS managers, at the same time as senior BBC figures were using them to silence outgoing female journalists. As a world-leading media organisation, leading the fight for fair and honest journalism across the world, the BBC should operate according to the principle that openness about its own personnel practices will lead to improvements.  

We should expect the BBC not to reinforce the message that is stark in the rest of our culture: that once a woman reaches  middle age, she need not be seen in public. The duty that we place on the BBC to represent each aspect of our national demography should, of course, include older women.

But most importantly, we should expect the BBC to uphold the law. Gender and age are both protected characteristics under the Equality Act, meaning that it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee for either of those qualities. The discriminatory intent must be measured on a case-by-case basis, but we know now from multiple cases that the BBC doesn't always follow the rules. In many other organizations faced with similar problems, change has happened fast when top managers make it a priority.  It isn’t rocket science to keep distinguished journalists productive.