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Getting the ratio right: How the BBC is tackling gender equity in its coverage

January 21, 2021 | By Nina Goswami, Creative Diversity Lead and journalist – BBC @NinaTheScoop

“Women’s representation in the news has flatlined (if not reversed) in the 21st century.” That was one of the damning conclusions in the recent report The Missing Perspectives of Women in News by Luba Kassova.

Structural marginalization

The claim is drawn from many factors including analysis of online news publications from six countries – the U.K., U.S., Nigeria, India, South Africa, and Kenya. The report also cited that, in political coverage, men accounted for up to seven times more of the voices heard than women.

It cited from a separate report: “Given the deeply political nature of the Covid-19 crisis, women’s structural marginalization in the political leadership roles established in response to the crisis locks in the suppression of women’s voices in the story.”

Some of the research used was conducted by Media Ecosystems Analysis Group, which wrote, for a study conducted between 1 March and 15 April 2020, that “when looking at non-coronavirus stories, gender equality metrics tend to be better than 2019 levels.”

Taking control

So, what are journalists doing differently for non-Covid stories? It comes down to control. And we’ve made control a core principle of the BBC’s 50:50 Project, which uses data to increase the number of women contributors on content. Control in this context means a journalist or content-maker’s ability to choose the people they include in their article, TV, or radio news piece.

For example, when the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes an announcement around the latest coronavirus restrictions, a journalist would be compelled to include a statement from him. He is intrinsic to the storytelling. Therefore, he’s not an element of the news item that can be controlled. However, sourcing the business owner impacted by the new announcement is in the power of the journalist to control.

This is what 50:50 concentrates on. It looks to create change by identifying the voices that are in the power of the journalist and content-maker to influence, and it is working to increase women’s representation at the BBC.

Data effects change

Understanding what content-makers can control has required the BBC to subtly change its thinking. BBC News presenter Ros Atkins, who started 50:50 in 2017, talks of how he wanted to move the BBC from being in a “constant state of trying” to increase women’s representation to actually doing it.

His approach was simple: Use data to effect change.

“We ask content creators to count each of the contributors in their work that they control and try to reach 50% women over a month. Every person who counts, counts as one. That makes the data collection very simple,” explained Atkins.

In the earlier Boris Johnson example, this would mean the British Prime Minister would not count but the business owner would. And counting people once, no matter how many times they appear in a piece, means the monitoring can be done quickly.

Atkins continued: “The approach means you can measure your work as you produce it, when it is still fresh in your mind. That gives the data the best chance to influence your thinking and your actions.”

Find new voices

The golden rule of 50:50 is that the best contributor always takes part. Atkins explains that it is not a quota system. Rather, “It is an opportunity to identify where representation may be lacking and then for content-makers to go out and see if they can find new voices to enrich their content, while improving the output’s gender balance.”

There are more than 650 teams across the BBC taking part in 50:50. That means not just the news, but also sports, factual and entertainment are seeking out new voices themselves. To support their search there is  also a central expert database with more than 1,500 women contributors available to the content teams.

Implementing these actions – using data to effect change, measure what you control and widening the pool of voices – has made a tangible impact at the BBC – and the audience has noticed. A survey of 2,000 BBC online users found that 39% had noticed a shift toward more women contributors and 32% of women aged 25 to 34 are now consuming more content as a result.

The impact

Lara Joannides, 50:50 Project Lead

In March 2020, as the world went into lockdown, two-thirds of BBC teams that submitted data reached 50% women representation. This is up from a third when they joined the project.

50:50 Project Lead Lara Joannides, who spearheads the initiative inside the BBC, had feared that the challenges of coronavirus could have a detrimental impact on representation because 50:50 is a voluntary scheme, and the Corporation moved down to critical services. Despite this, the challenge results saw a nine percentage point increase on the previous year.

“The determination of BBC colleagues to make change and the conditions created by the pandemic have resulted in a really positive shift,” said Joannides. “We’re confident that while there is still a way to go, we’ll be able to maintain and improve on these figures going forward.”  

The Covid effect

In more recent months, the BBC wanted to better understand the impact Covid-19 may have had on the representation initiative. So, the BBC took more than 2,500 snapshots of the gender balance on its programmes, online content, and events across a six-month period. Between June and November last year, the BBC took 2,563 snapshots, with 1,219 (48%) reaching 50% women contributors. During the same period in 2019, we took 2,528 snapshots and 988 (39%) reached the 50%. As mentioned, that represented a nine percentage point increase on the same period in the previous year.

Fran Unsworth, Director of BBC News

For Director of BBC News Fran Unsworth, a key factor behind increasing women’s representation has been the removal of barriers in the news making process that existed before the pandemic. “We’ve all embraced new ways of working this year. One definite benefit is that we’ve had a wider range of guests on air,” she said.

Such a theory is supported by the content-makers themselves including Rachel Foley, Senior Journalist and 50:50 Lead for the BBC News Channel. “There haven’t been many upsides to Covid-19. But one is that it appears to have made it easier for women to appear on air,” said Foley. “I’ve noticed more female contributors are able to speak to us live on the BBC News Channel since the pandemic began because they can do so from their own homes using apps like Zoom or Skype.”

Dr. Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh and a regular contributor on BBC News programmes, is one such example. “Not having to go anywhere has been absolutely brilliant,” she explained.

“It’s just made it much more possible for me to fit it in with my family responsibilities as well as my working life. It’s now not unusual for me to do TV or radio interviews before my youngest goes to school in the morning. I’d not been able to easily do that before.”

Collaboration now

The Kassova Report may see the women’s perspective as missing overall however, it also points to solutions. In fact, the report cited 50:50 as one of them. It points out how BBC News achieved “a wave of change in a short space of time against all odds and despite the numerous societal, cultural and systemic barriers that stand in their way.”

Since launch, more than 75 organizations across 22 countries have begun to do so as well by using 50:50 to monitor their content and communications to reach gender balance. In October, the BBC’s Director-General Tim Davie invited more organizations to join the 50:50 partners network saying that it is “only together we can deliver positive change.”  

His invitation to join 50:50 remains open.

50:50 is simple solution to increasing women’s voices on content but it is an effective one. It cannot fix a company’s workforce inequalities but it can act as a tool in a its diversity and inclusion armory.

I truly believe that the more of us embracing the 50:50 way the more likely we will be that, one day, we will read a report on gender representation that is not about the absence of women’s voices but the inclusion of them – loud and clear.

About the author

Nina Goswami is the BBC’s Creative Diversity Lead and is spearheading initiatives to support the Corporation’s aspiration that its on-air representation reflects society. Nina is also a journalist and, before her current post, was a BBC News senior producer. She has worked in media her whole professional career including The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph.

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