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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Inside the BBC 50:50 project’s equity efforts–which go beyond gender

April 27, 2022 | By Nina Goswami, Creative Diversity Lead and journalist – BBC @NinaTheScoop

“I had seen diversity initiatives flounder because they were too complicated or too negative an experience for people to take on.” BBC News presenter and 50:50 The Equality Project founder Ros Atkins told researchers at Behavioural Scientist in November 2020.

Atkins had created a data-driven initiative in 2017 to increase women’s representation on media content. According to the academics, it was “easy, attractive, social, and timely.”

While we see the challenges news organizations face as they seek to better represent society as a whole, we also see progress. That is progress that we, at 50:50, are keen to build upon.

Equity: Moving beyond gender

No pressure then as we look to move 50:50 beyond gender. The Behavioural Scientist article came out a month after the BBC announced that we were doing just that. We sought to see if 50:50 could increase disability and ethnic minority representation on media.

In October 2020, as the leader of the BBC’s 50:50 product, I voiced my belief that we could learn from how we had increased women’s representation in order to extend the scope of our work. That belief has been validated by the latest 50:50 Impact Report, which reveals the BBC’s data beyond gender for the first time.

Five years on from when 50:50 started, I believe we have demonstrated the benefits of increasing the diversity of voice on media content. Now, we need to sustain that. This year’s results builds on the progress made so far. It sets the foundations for further innovation that will further support content-makers in their mission to reflect the world around them.

Changing for the better

By March 2022, 250 BBC content teams had voluntarily signed up to monitor the disability and/or ethnicity make-up of their output. The good news is that the project continues to move the needle – in a range of areas of equity and representation.

Of those who submitted March data, 21% reached their disability target compared to 15% when they first started monitoring. For ethnic minority representation half reached their target, up from 47%.

Long term change

Some may argue that these sound like small increases. But to be frank: Any improvement is a good sign. I say this, knowing what pilot phase looked like. Some teams were starting at zero representation for disabled people. However, they persevered to move the dial.

Also, this project is about playing the long game. Equity and representation is not one and done. Far from it. The data suggests major gains can be made over time.

Of those monitoring disability for more than 18 months, 53% reached their targets in March. That’s up from 18% when they first started and a 35-percentage point increase. For teams monitoring ethnicity, over the same period, there was a 7-percentage point increase – up from 58% to 65%.

Lara Joannides, the BBC’s Creative Diversity Lead for 50:50, acknowledged there a lot more to do to increase diversity of voice on media content across the board.

“These results are an important milestone as we apply 50:50’s core principles for disability and ethnicity representation. They provide a solid foundation for us to build upon,” said Joannides. “This data allows is us to understand where we can improve, so now we need to go out and find more voices to create content that really reflects society.”

How it works

So how is 50:50 increasing diversity of voice? 50:50 is all about understanding where we are now, so we can make change for the future. Whether its disability, ethnicity or gender representation, 50:50 teams use the core principles Ros Atkins devised in 2017.

Using data to effect change, sees content-makers monitor their content in almost real-time. It mean they can share how they are doing at the next team debrief. Together, the team then decides on any actions needed to reach their monthly target.

Measure what you control, gives the framework for how teams monitor. As I often say, “you can’t change what you can’t control.” That goes for who appears on your control too. So, 50:50 teams are only monitoring who they choose to put on their output.

Never compromise on quality, is the paramount principle. The best contributor must always take part. 50:50 is about enriching storytelling with diversity of voice. To do that that voice has to be the best. As Atkins said, in relation to women, in Behavioural Scientist: “50:50 is not about keeping excellent men out of our programs—it’s about finding many more excellent women contributors.”

Setting targets

While the principles are a terrific foundation, you need to set tangible and realistic goals in order to move forward. When it came to increasing women’s representation it felt like a no-brainer. Overall, teams aim for 50% female contributors over the course of any given month. It is the reason our grassroots initiative is called 50:50.

These targets become more complex when you look at monitoring disability and ethnicity. In general, BBC UK teams work towards the Corporation’s diversity targets: 50% women, 20% Black, Asian and minority ethnic, and 12% disabled representation.

However, teams will adjust those targets in line with their specific audience demographics. For example, when it comes to ethnic minority representation for BBC Scotland, they would be aiming for 8% in line with their population. Meanwhile, BBC London is working towards a 50% target to reflect their audience.

Collecting the data

Armed with targets, teams need to collect the data. 50:50 has created two tailored approaches to collect data for disabled contributors and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

As Joannides explained: “One is by perception, which is how 50:50 has always been done for gender. This means counting based on any publicly available information we have about the contributor. Whether it’s from social media or something they’ve told us themselves. Then the other way, which a small group of teams do, is by collecting actual data.”

Collecting actual data tends to be forms based. This method is being rolled out by BBC Devon across their daytime programming after a successful pilot, and also by 50:50 partners The British Fashion Council.

50:50 gender challenge

It is the second year that 50:50 partner organizations have published their March data alongside the BBC. The 50:50 partner network now spans 30 countries and includes 145 organizations from a wide range of sectors.

Miranda Holt, the external partners lead for 50:50, said the network had grown by 45 new members in the last 12 months.

“We work closely with NHK in Japan, and now reach as far as Mongolia – working with the Media Council there,” said Holt. “50:50 continues to expand in communications companies, law firms, industry regulators and the financial services sector. These organizations show how the 50:50 principles can be applied to any created content – from websites to events to publications. “

Overall, 72 partners submitted their data, up from 41 partners in 2021. Almost half (47%) reached 50% women. For those below the target of 50% women when they first started monitoring, 73% saw an improvement in the gender balance of their content.

As for the BBC when it comes to increasing women’s representation, 61% reached 50:50 compared to 35% when they first joined the project. The proportion of teams reaching 50:50 went up to 69% for those monitoring gender for at least four years.

Audience appreciation

What I find most heartening is that BBC audiences continue to notice an increase in women’s representation. And many are enjoying content more as a result.

In March, a survey of 2,032 BBC online users found that of women aged 16 to 34, 62% enjoyed content more. That’s up from 57% on the previous year, and 68% were consuming more content, an increase of 10 percentage points.

A 50:50 future

This year the BBC is celebrating 100 years of broadcasting. The Corporation’s mission continues to be about delivering value to all audiences, whoever and wherever they are.

BBC Director-General Tim Davie said: “The 50:50 Project plays a crucial role in finding new voices and helping us better reflect the audiences we serve.” He added: “It’s already made a huge impact on the BBC and our global partners. There’s potential to do so much more.”

And there is more to come, as BBC Creative Diversity Director June Sarpong explained: “50:50’s next steps will be to gather data on the representation of class within BBC content to see how well we reflect socio-economic diversity and – crucially – where we need to improve.”

She continued: “Can it be done? Well, as James Baldwin says, ‘nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ So it is heartening that 50:50 is starting to face this.”

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