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Journey to equality: An analysis of the 50:50 Challenge

April 22, 2021 | By Nina Goswami, Creative Diversity Lead and journalist – BBC @NinaTheScoop

BBC News presenter Ros Atkins and I often talk about “pinch yourself moments” when it comes to 50:50 The Equality Project – a grassroots initiative he started at the heart of the BBC’s London newsroom four years ago.

He wanted to increase female representation on his program Outside Source by monitoring the contributors his team could control. Now, more than 100 organizations in 26 countries are using the data-driven core principles he came up to improve the gender balance on the content they produce.

Real results

That in itself could constitute a moment – reaching 100 partners. For me, however, a moment of truth has come. We can see how the global network is preforming. For the first time, the BBC invited 50:50 partners to join our annual challenge to see how many of us could feature at least 50% women contributors on our output.

The BBC Director-General Tim Davie found the results encouraging. He called on others to take up the next challenge. As he said, “We are now also seeing a real impact beyond the BBC on a global scale.”

This time around, 41 partners took up the challenge. So how did they fare? As a collective, 50% of the content reached gender balance. That’s up from 31% compared to when those organizations first joined the project.

Our 50:50 Impact Report 2021 details how even those organizations that did not reach gender balance showed signs of improvement. Over three-quarters (77%) of content-makers featured more than 40% women contributors on their output. That’s compared only 58% when they first joined the project.

BBC upward trend continues

Now, the 50:50 partners network has set itself a benchmark. So, next year’s challenge will be a real test of the progress 50:50 is making collectively. However, it is achievable, particularly if the BBC’s performance is anything to go by.

This was the BBC’s third challenge. For third consecutive year, there has been an improvement in the number of teams reaching gender balance. In fact, 70% of content reached 50:50 compared to 36% in the first month of monitoring. Plus, no team monitoring for three years or more featured less than 40% women contributors. That is a big first.

Audience appreciation

Audiences are noticing these equity advancements. A survey of more than 2,100 BBC online users found that 62% felt there were more women contributors on output. Meanwhile 58% of women aged 16-34 said they consumed more services as a result of greater female representation. That’s a 12 percentage point increase on comparable data from last year.

There are now 670 teams committed to 50:50 in the BBC. 50:50 Project Lead Lara Joannides is proud of the teams that took part in this year’s challenge. She said: “This is an incredible achievement, especially considering the extra demands teams have faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The results prove that ensuring fair representation of all audiences across our content remains a priority for 50:50 teams, no matter what.”

The Australian way

ABC News in Australia was one of the very first partners to join the BBC in implementing 50:50. Together, the two organizations are creating real impact at opposite ends of the globe. In March, the Australian broadcaster saw 75% of their participating teams reach 50:50. That’s a big jump from 29%, when they first joined the project.

The scale of implementation of 50:50 at ABC means they have a core team to drive the change across the organization. Their 50:50 Equality Project Leads keep themselves attuned to the evolving news landscape so that they can provide support to ensure women’s voices are heard.

The changing working practices for journalists due to coronavirus is a good example of that. The ABC team gently reminded content-makers of the role 50:50 had in ensuring different voices were heard at such as crucial time.

“We also asked them to consider how the pandemic was specifically impacting Australian women, to tell the story of the health crisis in a way that surfaced women’s perspectives and gave voice to those on the frontline – nurses, doctors, care workers and teachers,” explained Emma Pearce and Rhiannon Hobbins in the report.

They added that there were unexpected benefits emerging from the pandemic too: “Some teams found it easier to reach and engage female talent, particularly in our afternoon and evening timeslots, as working from home became the norm and school pick-ups and commuter runs no longer affected their availability to do a quick Zoom, Skype or Slack interview.”

Covid-19 was not the only story the team had its eye on. At the start of 2021 there was a series of headline grabbing stories concerning the treatment of women in politics and the culture faced by women working in Canberra Parliament House.

ABC’s 50:50 Leads said: “Our 50:50 work fed into and enhanced our journalism on these issues. Our coverage incorporates female perspectives and the specific impacts on women. And our teams are alert to the need to empower and respect the agency of women at the centre of the stories.”

From Australia to Austria

In Europe, the Austrian public broadcaster ORF had 90 teams taking part in the March challenge. Overall, 52% of teams taking part featured at least 50% women.

ORF equal opportunities commissioner Katia Rössner said ORF is seeing improvement beyond the March snapshot. Over half of teams (55%) taking part for six months or more reached 50:50 by the end of March. That marks a 3% increase on the overall ORF performance. She said: “This confirms the fact, that the longer the teams are part of the challenge, the more likely they reach a quota of 50% in their programs.”

Rössner acknowledges in her submission to the 50:50 Impact Report that there was some trepidation when ORF started to implement 50:50’s core principles. She wrote about an observation by a regional news editor who told her: “At first there was some skepticism regarding ‘token women.’ But the team started focusing on interviewing a female intensive care doctor instead of a man. We found a great doctor who has the potential to become a new coronavirus expert on our show.”

For Rössner the “competitive and sporting spirit of the 50:50 Challenge” appealed to many ORF program-makers. She said: “Honest engagement and even small steps towards 50:50, no matter where you start, makes you a winner.”

Building a 50:50 future

One promising sign for the future is that 50:50 has a growing network of universities and journalism schools. Lecturers use it to get their students to think about the diversity of contributors during their News Days or Weeks.

Nottingham Trent University is one of 19 academic institutions taking part. In the report, BA Journalism student Emilia Roman said implementing 50:50 was “an eye-opening experience” for her.

During the first week, the students were asked to monitor their content but not change their way of working. In that week, Emilia said they recorded 29% women contributors across their website. Week two, the students focused on equal representation.

“The challenge of incorporating the principals of 50:50 into our work came down to one crucial element of story development – research,” said Roman. “Accepting the first reply and focusing on ‘getting the story up’ was not enough to help us drive a significant change in our coverage.”

By the last day of production, the students’ content featured 49% women contributors. Emilia said that “It’s pretty clear to us that recognizing the need for equal representation can significantly change the way your content looks.”

Spreading the 50:50 word

As evidenced by the universities, the 50:50 network now spans outside of media, with 50 partners coming from a range of sectors – public relations to legal to corporate. They use 50:50 to monitor their websites, social media, spokespeople, and event speakers. They seek to understand whether they are reflecting in their content the gender balance of their organizations.

Richard Purnell is communications manager at the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and he said 50:50 “has helped draw attention to the issue of diversity in our organization, and given us the tools to do something about it.”

He said, “While it’s clear we have some way to go, 50:50 has triggered a whole series of conversations about equality which weren’t really happening before. As a result, we are now planning to train and develop a new set of media spokespeople. That should improve the breadth and depth of insight we can provide.”

An everyday movement

What the 50:50 partners have demonstrated is that we can all make small changes that are in our control and they can have a much wider impact.

The BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity June Sarpong reminds us in the 50:50 Impact Report a quote from American feminist Gloria Steinem: “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.”

She goes on to say she believe 50:50 is creating that movement. I leave you with her words: “Every day, thousands of people are counting the 50:50 way. A small action for one individual, but a powerful tool of change – a movement. I would urge as many people and organizations as possible to join us so we can work together to reach a common goal – creating content that better reflects our world.”

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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