Born at the BBC, a framework for balancing gender representation in content goes global

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A growing number of media organizations worldwide are signing on to a BBC-led effort to balance gender representation in their content while also expanding it to more broadly assess how well they reflect their audiences.

Ros Atkins, a presenter on the BBC news show Outside Source, initiated the network’s 50:50 Project in 2016 with the goal of tracking the on-air appearances of men and women in BBC programming to work toward equal representation. Results are shared within the company to promote change where needed.

After the BBC released a 2021 Impact Report for the 50:50 Project, BBC Director-General Tim Davie announced that it “shows that 70% of teams submitting data in March reached at least 50% women in their output — an increase of 34% on where they began.” 

“For the first time, no team featured fewer than 40% women after three years of monitoring, pointing to a longer-term cultural shift,” Davie added.

The project’s success lies in its scale and the level of participation, said Lara Joannides, Creative Diversity Lead for the 50:50 Project. “The 50:50 Project is the BBC’s biggest-ever collective action to improve representation across all its content, with 700 teams across all divisions, from News and Current Affairs to Sport and Children’s programming, taking part,” she said.

The BBC went on to promote the 50:50 Project worldwide. More than 125 organizations in public service media and beyond from 26 countries have become involved. Partners in the U.S. include the Asian American Journalists Association, Liberty Communications, the Newmark School, the University of Texas, Voice of America, The Walter Cronkite School and New York Public Radio. 

Studies have highlighted the degree of gender inequality in news media, both on- and off-screen. A 2019 study by the Women’s Media Center found that men reported stories on ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS twice as often as their female colleagues. It also revealed that women made up 41.7% of the workforce in U.S. newsrooms.

Recent internal controversies within the BBC have highlighted the network’s shortcomings on diversity and inclusion, even as the 50:50 Project has expanded. Presenter Samira Ahmed won a lawsuit for equal pay in 2020 after discovering that an anchor on an equivalent news show was being paid significantly more. A white journalist used a slur against Black people in a local news program, prompting an update to editorial guidelines about racist language. And the broadcaster also gave a platform to a former porn actor who made offensive comments about transgender women, which the BBC later removed.

But the 50:50 Project demonstrates progress toward a more comprehensive system to track representation of women, people of color and other historically marginalized groups. Ten years ago, I processed forms for on- and off-screen diversity when I worked on the scheduling team in charge of placing programs for the BBC’s children’s channels, CBBC and CBeebies. The approach had its flaws. Not all productions submitted forms, and if they did, the forms were sometimes completed incorrectly or failed to include everyone involved in the show. Shows with greater diversity were more likely to submit forms, which skewed figures toward a more positive picture.

The importance of planning

Under the 50:50 Project, surveys reflect how employees and talent identify in terms of gender. The BBC also asks partners to “monitor the proportion of contributors who identify as non-binary or genderqueer.”

“Due to the nature of the content and teams’ workflows, the majority of the monitoring is done by perception, using any information that is publicly available about the contributor such as their specified pronouns,” Joannides said. “Where possible, some teams collect actual data by asking contributors how they identify.” 

The BBC acts on the survey results by setting targets to narrow gaps month by month, with their progress shared every four weeks or so. This can highlight problem areas within each team without waiting for findings to be reported across the entire department or action plans to be made elsewhere.

Joannides outlined strategies for increasing representation of women. “Planning teams are key — anticipating news events coming up the following day or week, and identifying good female contributors who are available on certain subjects such as climate change, the Olympics or elections,” she said. “We also work with external organizations to try to uncover new experts and spokespeople, and host networking events to familiarize potential experts with what to expect when asked to give an interview to a broadcaster such as the BBC.” 

“We know it’s not difficult to find diverse experts — you just need to dig a little deeper.”

Brenda Williams-Butts, New York Public Radio

“Teams are able to fit the process into their existing workflows to track their progress in real- time, which ensures diversity of representation remains at the forefront of editorial discussions and decisions,” she added. 

Brenda Williams-Butts, VP of recruitment, diversity and inclusion at New York Public Radio, was already interested in implementing monitoring in 2018 prior to being approached by the 50:50 Project, so the timing was just right for the station. “We were looking at the voices on our air and thinking about how we might do that ourselves,” she said.

The BBC had given Ros Atkins permission to expand the initiative beyond the network. Atkins discussed the 50:50 Project in the summer of 2018 with media organizations in New York and Washington, D.C., including NYPR.

The station piloted the project on programs including Science Friday, All of It and The Takeaway and its classical station WQXR. It later implemented tracking throughout the organization, with ethnicity as a priority. “Our goal was to empower our content-makers to think more carefully,” said Williams-Butts.

Staffers used a shared spreadsheet overseen by a project manager to log data about everyone who appeared on air, which had the advantage of serving as a database for diverse experts to add to stories. “We don’t want Black and brown people to only talk about race,” Williams-Butts said. “We want them to talk about everything. We know it’s not difficult to find diverse experts — you just need to dig a little deeper.”

The effort has helped shape programming, with WQXR now showcasing composers of color as a result of the trial. NYPR’s programming has become “much more representative of our demographics,” Williams-Butts said, “but we still have a long way to go.”

‘As simple as counting’

Weeks after joining the 50:50 Project, the Voice of America’s Russian-language TV program New York, New York reported an exact split of 51 men and 51 women in June 2019. But other shows had more work to do — one month, 93% of featured or quoted people on one show were male. After less than two years of reporting, VOA is on track to redress the gender imbalance, with a 50.2% female contribution across all programming in March 2021.

The Cronkite School joined in 2021 and already has plans to extend its monitoring beyond gender. Christina Leonard, executive editor of Cronkite News, said that she “wants to increase the diversity of sources beyond gender to include race, age and geography — all as part of a goal to broaden and deepen coverage in underserved communities.”

While the real work now seems to be in shifting from the more binary reporting of gender to the nuances of race and disability, the strength of the 50:50 Project is its ability to jump-start an outlet’s progress towards its goal. BBC Director of Creative Diversity June Sarpong said, “I am often struck by 50:50’s simplicity and how it diversifies voice through something as simple as counting.” 

Williams-Butts said she would advise all media outlets to join the 50:50 Project. “It’s no longer a side thing,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s critical. It unites us to be able to embrace all cultures and backgrounds, to make diversity a part of the fabric of public media.”

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