Q&A with Rebecca Burke: ‘It’s easy to stay driven when you are standing up for what is right.’

In this blog, we were delighted to talk to the inspirational Rebecca Burke. If you haven’t already read about Rebecca in the news, Rebecca has become known for her landmark equal pay claim against TalkTalk. When Rebecca was singled out for redundancy in May 2017, she was shocked to discover that TalkTalk had been paying her 40% less salary and 50% less bonus than the 3 other male Programme Directors that were on her team doing the same job.


Rebecca spoke to us all about her career, refusing to accept gender discrimination and the lessons that she has learnt along the way…

Can you tell us a bit about your career?

I’ve worked in project delivery and change management for nearly 22 years. I started as a Project Assistant in London back in the 90s and then worked my way up through Project Manager, Programme Manager, Portfolio Lead and I’ve held 4 Director level roles for the past 6 years. I’ve delivered hundreds of projects, programmes and portfolios over the years, ranging from small IT implementation projects to entire business start-ups.


Each project is different, with specific objectives, a new team and different challenges. I feel like I’m constantly learning, as each once has taught me something new and novel. I enjoy the satisfaction I get at the end of a successful delivery, proud of having built something amazing together. It’s this thought that motivates me at the start of every new project, doing something different, with a new team, collaborating, testing and reworking until we’ve nailed it.


What is a typical day in your career?

My morning stand-ups tend to include most of the core project team and can be quite early in the morning depending on the working day of the team. I’ll check-in on our daily priorities, and then the broader team will raise issues and risks that will get discussed, recorded and actioned. I’ll spend the rest of the day meeting key stakeholders, suppliers and individual team members, to gain their buy-in, negotiating to get what we need, when we need it, generally smoothing the way for the programme to continue on track. I will also review and publish the project plans and reports, manage the budgets and chair our weekly board meetings. It’s my job to hold an overview of the entire programme / portfolio, so that we always know what needs to be done for successful delivery. It’s a very people-focused role, where establishing and maintaining good working relationships is critical to making sure that our plans come together to succeed.


What made you choose this career?

I lived in London when studying for my Philosophy degree and at that time it was easy to get a job. Given my degree subject I wasn’t particularly fussy on what job, or where I did it, and therefore I didn’t actually choose my career path. I just took roles that provided me with work experience, the right pay packet, and seemed to have good people. I quickly learnt that I enjoyed working in teams, solving problems and communicating, and that working on projects came naturally to me. I’ve spent over 20 happy years focused on fine-tuning these skills through training, on the job experience and generally throwing myself in at the deep end.


Did you face any challenges along the way?

Lots of course, but there is one very big challenge that I have faced so far in my career that I wanted to talk about here. I was very happy in my role at TalkTalk, it was a time where there were some great projects, and I adored my teams. I felt valued and respected by all of my colleagues and the senior team, and as a result gladly spent many evenings and even some weekends making sure that the projects I was working on were a success. I had been awarded additional bonuses and long-term incentives for my work and dedication, and so you can understand how shocked I was to find that I had been singled out for redundancy by TalkTalk in 2017. It was then during the Unfair Dismissal appeals process that I then also found out that I was being paid 40% less salary, and 50% less bonus than the 3 male Programme Directors on my team and doing the same job as me. I was in a state of shock and assumed that TalkTalk’s senior team would rectify the problem when they found out, but instead I was subjected to months of painful and pointless grievance and appeals processes, led by ill-informed teams with a single objective, to intimidate me and deny everything.


‘I was being paid 40% less salary and 50% less bonus than the 3 male Programme Directors doing the same job as me.’


If any, can you tell us more about how you overcame those setbacks?

Unfortunately, the challenges that I faced around equal pay at TalkTalk are challenges that most women will face at some point in their career. The statistics show that although men and women enter the workforce on broadly equal terms, women are 40% less likely to get promoted whilst in a role and suffer the consequences of conscious and unconscious biases, as well as the motherhood penalty through recruitment and performance review processes. This results in significant pay disparities by the time they reach their mid-career point, resulting in large pay disparities like mine. Of the other women who I have recently spoken to about their fight for equal pay, it seems that we were all on around half the salary of our male colleagues doing the same job.


I have not yet overcome this particular setback with my case due back in court on 27th January 2019, and having reach the end of my ability to fund this case, I have launched a campaign on the CrowdJustice platform seeking support and donations so that I can continue to fight TalkTalk in court, and create the valuable case law that will both simplify and speed up any similar cases to mine in the future. Please donate or share this post to help today! https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/equalpayforall/


What is an important initiative that you feel passionate about in your role?

I’ve recently met many brave, strong, successful women who have had very similar experiences to my own. This has helped me to understand that sex discrimination and equal pay issues are much more prevalent than we realise. We (myself included) had been led to believe that equal pay had been achieved, and that any discrepancies were due to the choice of women to remain in the lower-ranking roles due to motherhood commitments. What I’ve realised is that this simply is not the case, women have not achieved equality within the workplace, or equity of pay since the Equal Pay Act was passed back in 1970, and I have decided to dedicate the next phase of my life/career to finding out why, and what can be done to fix it. Therefore I have:

  • Dedicated any settlement from this equal pay and unfair dismissal case to the Fawcett Society and Times Up UK so that they can continue to fight for equal rights of our women and girls in the future.

  • Embarked on a PhD at Kingston University in order to seek out some possible solutions that could help to eradicate inequality for good, so that no more women have to suffer the emotional and financial stress of our tribunal courts.

‘Women have not achieved equality within the workplace, or equity of pay since the Equal Pay Act was passed back in 1970, and I have decided to dedicate the next phase of my life/career to finding out why, and what can be done to fix it.’

What do you think gave you the drive and determination to succeed?

I have a brilliant support network of family, friends and colleagues that have supported me every step of the way. It isn’t easy taking on an entire company in a court of law, the intimidation, threats, belittling and lies, not to mention the impact on your family life, finances and mental health is huge; but I knew I had people who believed in me and would support me no matter what. I also know I am doing the right thing. I have a daughter who is now 9 years old and I worry about the kind of everyday sexism that she will have to endure as she lives through her school life and career, and I don’t want to tell her that my generation just didn’t make this a priority enough to fix it.


It’s easy to stay driven when you are standing up for what is right. I’m fighting now so that the women and girls of our future don’t have to go through what myself and many other women have suffered.


What’s great about being a female in your role?

I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about that question before, isn’t that strange? It is not unusual for me to be the only female in the room, and so I’ve always been aware that I’m different. I know that as a woman I do things differently, and I don’t conform to a corporate stereotype, meaning I frequently have a different perspective which can sometimes be frustrating or uncomfortable for my colleagues. I’m very open, trusting, honest and compassionate in my leadership approach with my teams. I talk openly about mistakes and challenges, will take full accountability for any failures, and genuinely care about the team and their well-being. I think this is what is great about me being a female in my role, and hopefully it is also what makes me a good leader.


What is your biggest achievement in life?

Career-wise I’m most proud of the innovative and transformational programmes I’ve delivered over the years. It’s a bit like gardening, you get the seedling of an idea; feed, protect and nurture it; add the resources it needs to grow; and then, when it's ready, allow it to flourish and grow on its own. I’m also very honored to have met such amazingly talented people along the way. I do hope that there will be many more proud career moments for me in the future, its not over yet! Our wonderful daughter is a constant inspiration to me, and, although not really an achievement, I count myself extremely lucky for the time I get to spend with my close family and friends.


What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learnt along the way?

Trust your intuition, learn from your mistakes and realise that you are not alone. No matter what you face in life, there are always others facing similar challenges to you. Our connected world allows you to reach out and find people who will understand and support you on your journey. You just have to put yourself out there and ask for help.

‘Trust your intuition, learn from your mistakes and realise that you are not alone.’

Have you ever felt that your gender has brought unnecessary challenges to your career?

Because of my experiences, and the statistics, I know that my gender has more than likely been the reason I didn’t get the job, or the promotion, or the bonus, or even the same pay for the same job in the past. I feel that businesses have wasted centuries of diverse and creative thinking which could have meant that some of those things we have got wrong might have been prioritised and fixed by now, or not even have existed in the first place.


On the point of equal pay specifically, to me it seems we’ve politely asked those people at the top of our biggest businesses to prioritize and fix a problem that they simply don’t experience, and so deny exists. The classical economic theories of why businesses exist state quite clearly that it is to prioritise growth and return in order to generate profit, so how can we move this important issue up the agenda for our CEO and boards?


With the gig economy and a new generations perspective, I am hoping that we will realise that we have progressed, and now businesses can do much more. Already there are some examples of how a Shared Value model can help us to solve some big social issues at the same time as building a great business. Its time to change.

‘to me it seems we’ve politely asked those people at the top of our biggest businesses to prioritize and fix a problem that they simply don’t experience, and so deny exists.’

What three tips would you give to young females starting their careers?

That’s easy:

  • Work to live

  • Do what you enjoy

  • Keep learning


What is the best bit of advice that you have ever been given?

Choose your battles wisely. You can’t win every battle that you will face in life, and so choosing those that fully align to your principles, and you believe you can win, will be the best use of your energy.


Do you think enough is being done by businesses to address gender imbalance?

I’ve worked in many different industries throughout my career, ranging from the public sector, TV, Telecom, the Motor Industry, IT and mobile. Despite the unconscious bias and diversity training and programmes that inevitably run in large corporations, I’m very sad to say that over these past two decades I’ve only ever experienced a male-dominated cultures, which are unfortunately the ‘modus operandi’ that perpetuates gender imbalance.


What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in their organisations?

Know your value (or the market rate) for your skills, and always understand your worth to the business you are working for. This knowledge should help you to:

  • Ensure that you achieve pay and grade parity with your peers.

  • Support a clear explanation of the benefit you are bringing to the business on a daily basis.

  • Provide you with clarity on what leverage you have when seeking promotions, learning opportunities and new roles.

‘Know your value (or the market rate) for your skills, and always understand your worth to the business you are working for.’

I don’t think this means that you need to be on the constant ‘sell’ about the value you are bringing to the business, but I’m sure it could serve to be a helpful reminder when a promotion comes up, or your appraisal is looming, or you are ready for your next challenge.


What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?

Think about what kind of leader you want to be. Think about your experience of leaders, and what has made them good and bad from your own perspective. You should then forge your own leadership style, and don’t be afraid to be different. Remember that there is still a lack of diversity in business leadership, and so role models will be sparse and tend to follow current corporate cultural norms. And, when you get to your management or leadership role, make sure that you take a careful look around you to give yourself the confidence that everyone in your team has equal opportunities and pay, making sure that you address any issues fairly.


What’s one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?

People will naturally respect a leader that is willing to take on different perspectives, and always treats their teams fairly. That’s why I think that great leadership can stem from embracing diversity wholeheartedly. Marketeers don’t make good decisions about which new product to launch if they don’t understand their customers. Most British people are proud that they live in most diverse and open-minded countries in the world, isn’t it time our businesses reflected that?


If you would like to read more about Rebecca’s landmark equal pay claim against TalkTalk, click here.

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