WHEN BBC News presenter Ros Atkins was listening to the radio on a car journey to the South West of England during the Christmas break in 2016, I am sure he would never have thought a simple idea he have would lead to, what I like to call, a global movement – the 50:50 Project.
Ros was listening to a BBC radio station and after quite a long period of time realised he had not heard a single female voice. He thought to himself: “How can that be? How in 2016 can women’s voices be absent from a radio programme?”
So when he returned to the BBC newsroom in 2017, he decided to do something about it and turned to his team at Outside Source, a new programme that airs on BBC World News TV and domestically on BBC News Channel.
The 50:50 story
They began to monitor their daily news programme and count the number of men and number of women on their output to see if they could reach 50% women contributors over a month period.
Ros tells me how his team thought they would easily hit 50% women contributors in the first month, but they were under 40% and that shocked them. It took them a few months, but they reached 50:50 and have maintained it ever since – three years on.
What was happening at Outside Source had not gone unnoticed by other programmes, and through word of mouth (and a little Ros conversation) other BBC programmes began to join.
Today, we have more than 600 teams across the BBC are now voluntarily taking part and not just in News but across TV, radio, digital services, music and even orchestras. Back in March 2020, two-thirds of those who submitted data reach 50% women representation – up from a third when they joined the project.
Spreading the 50:50 word
50:50’s organic growth has also continued outside the BBC. We have more than 75 partner organisations – across the media, communications, business and legal sector – all using the 50:50 methodology.
So what’s made 50:50 go from an idea by a presenter and a bunch of journalists to something that spans the BBC in 35 countries and our partner organisations in 22 countries?
50:50 monitoring has three core principles at its heart. I believe it is these that makes it different from any other way of monitoring. As I go through them, you may think them simple and that is the beauty of it.
Principle One: We use data to affect change
Of course, organisations collect a lot of data about their performance. What’s different about 50:50 is that we are not doing at a top organisational level, we are doing it on the ground. Our content-makers and journalists are doing the monitoring themselves – every time they’re making content or soon after.
They then share that data as close to when they made the content as they can with the rest of their team so they can identify future areas of improvement. They do this for that show but also across a set period of time – for a daily programme that’s a month. So they will look at their running total for that month as assess how they can make their contributors 50:50.
It could be that two weeks in the programme is at 70% women contributors, so the team would be looking to see how over the next two weeks they can bring that to 50% women and 50% men.
By having the data at the forefront of content-makers minds that is how we are affecting change to increase women’s representation.
Principle Two: We measure what we control
Often with monitoring initiatives we think big. We need to know everything before we can even think about how to make change. Then we realise the enormity of the task at hand and feel helpless, so may not even try as a result. With 50:50 we don’t necessarily look at the whole, only what we can control and have an impact on.
Let’s take BBC News as an example. We, as TV journalists, do not get to choose who our presenters are. That is chosen way about our heads. So we don’t count them towards the 50:50 monitoring.
We also often cannot control the characters that are intrinsic to the story of the day. I always like the example of the British Prime Minister. We, as journalists, cannot control it is currently Boris Johnson or that it was Theresa May before him. So we would not count them if they are central to the story and we cannot tell it without them. Everyone else, such as the political commentator, counts and they count as one.
By measuring only want we can control means we have a fighting chance of creating change. It is working and over the last three years that change has been noticed by the BBC’s audiences.
Our latest survey of more than 2,000 BBC online users found that 39% of consumers had seen a shift towards more women contributors, 40% of 16-34-year-olds were enjoying content more and 32% of 25-34-year-old women were consuming more online services.
Principle Three: We never compromise on quality
This principle is what we call our golden rule – we never compromise on quality. We’ve seen how the impact of increasing women’s representation is a positive one for our audiences and, in fact, increases consumption of BBC services. That’s the business case for diversity right there.
However, there key reason for increasing the voice of underrepresented areas of society is all about enriching our content and storytelling. By seeking out new experts, new commentators we come across new stories and different opinions and points of view.
All of this helps feed into the BBC’s mission to “inform, education and entertain” our audiences. We can only do this if everyone is being represented and feel they are being heard.
It is why, following the success of 50:50 for women’s representation that we are now rolling out the three core principles to monitoring disability and ethnicity representation in BBC content.
BBC Norfolk’s broadcast assistant Sophie Ludkin nicely sums up the impact 50:50 has had for her and her team over the two years their Breakfast show has been involved: “It’s crucial in local radio to make sure the community is able to hear themselves reflected in the output. Gender, race, disability and class are all areas where the team question and push each other to reflect the community better – and that’s key to making our shows a success. It’s a team effort where we all need to hold each other accountable in order to do better.”
50:50 outside the media
So how does this work outside of the media sector? That is the beauty of the 50:50 core principles. If you can monitor it them you can pretty much apply 50:50 to it. As long as the core principles are at the heart of the counting then we tailor the monitoring to the need of the team.
For instance, if you are an events team you can monitor the panellists or speakers or if you are a corporate organisation you can monitor your internal communications to see if your staff are being reflected. The opportunities are endless and our partners – from media organisation ABC News (Australia) to consumer goods company Unilever to law firm Addleshaw Goddard – have been tailoring 50:50 so that it creates real sustained change for their needs.
A 50:50 future
I, personally, moved away from being a full-time journalist to focus on how we can utilise the successes of 50:50 so we can increase diversity of representation on a global scale.
I am a true believer in you can only be what you can see, and why 50:50 is so dear to me. I believe the more organisations that increase women’s visibility – and visibility of all underrepresented groups – the more likely we can create role models that people can aspire to. In turn, those who are inspired will join our sectors adding those much-needed new voices. That will help those businesses and we, in the media, can showcase them – bringing things full circle.
I’ll leave you now with something I found quite powerful from BBC weather presenter Matt Taylor who posted this on Instagram after the last women’s football World Cup: “Up until the women’s World Cup I could not get my girls interested in football. Both now play the game and are mildly obsessed… Thank you @lionesses #beinspired #lionesses.”
That’s the power of visibility.