The BBC Challenged Its Staff to Achieve 50% Women Contributors… and It's Working

Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to speak with members of the team leading the BBC 50:50 Project, “the biggest collective action on increasing women’s representation in BBC content that there’s ever been”.

A big part of this voluntary effort was for teams across the BBC to monitor progress by tallying the gender of contributors over time. The remarkable increase in the number of women on air during the past year shows how something as simple as counting can have so much power. We are thrilled to share an update on the project from Angela Henshall, BBC.com commissioning editor and 50:50 Project advocate.

p0630sjx.jpg

There was something about the BBC 50:50 Project that switched a light on in my brain. For years I had a nagging feeling that all of the journalism I was working on every day of my career was skewing male — it wasn’t giving women enough space on the page or on the air — and that I wasn’t doing enough about it. That’s a bad feeling! While the media didn’t invent gender bias, it plays a key role in perpetuating it.

From the day that I started my career as a junior reporter to rising through the ranks, there was certainly a sense within newsrooms that this was just the status quo, that this was just the way things were in news. There are more male reporters, presenters, editors, and even more men newsmakers and experts, so therefore the output would always and invariably skew male. That was deeply frustrating, but there just didn’t seem to be a way to get action going on a bigger scale.

And then 50:50, masterminded by Ros Atkins, came along. The project has been all about ditching the hand-wringing and “doing stuff”, and the impact has been remarkable. 50:50 is now the biggest ever collective action to increase women’s representation in BBC content — and has been adopted by many other media organisations around the world.

So how does it work? 50:50 is a simple tallying process with methodology that gives teams a clear picture of how well or poorly they are doing at representing women in their content every day. Crucially, it also gives them the toolkit to move the dial to improve it.

Last year, BBC Director General Tony Hall challenged the teams participating across the organisation to achieve 50% women contributors in English language news, current affairs, and topical programmes.

The results? The proportion of women contributors appearing on BBC television and radio and online has radically increased. A staggering 74% of teams monitoring their output for 12 months or more reached 50% women contributors or more in April 2019, and over 500 teams across the BBC are now signed up for the project. You can find a list of some of them here.

 
 

I joined the project on an attachment from my day job as a commissioning editor for the BBC.com features sites to spread the word even further. It has gathered so much momentum that the BBC has now shared the methodology with other media organisations and is working with more than 20 external partners who are signed up to replicate the project in their own newsrooms. These include Financial Times, ABC News, STV, and Fortune.

The clincher, of course, will be sustaining it. Like a diet, we often see teams relax too much once they’ve reached 50% women in their content. So, by March 2020, the BBC has pledged to see even more output reaching a 50:50 split between men and women contributors.


 
AHenshall5050 bio pic.jpeg

Angela Henshall is a BBC.com commissioning editor and 50:50 Project advocate. Newsrooms interested in 50:50 can reach the team at 5050Contact@bbc.co.uk.