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May 16, 2019, 2:17 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The BBC’s 50:50 Project shows equal gender representation in news coverage is achievable — even in traditionally male areas

“We’ve had a positive response from political parties who now accept that this is how BBC News operates and have been more imaginative in which spokespeople they put up for interview.”

News organizations that want to diversify their editorial output have a number of different ways to do it. On the lame end, they can simply talk about wanting to be more diverse without actually doing anything about it. At the opposite end of the spectrum, they can set a real target and strive to hit it. This worked for Outside Magazine. (Or they can have actual targets couched as “growth goals,” like the Financial Times.)

The BBC has publicly taken the tactic of setting a target. A year ago, the BBC set out to achieve gender equality in its on-air programming, with the goal of at least half the contributors to BBC programs and content being female by April 2019. The effort was already underway at some individual programs, starting with Ros Atkins’ “Outside Source” back in 2016.

Before we go too much further, let’s get this out of the way up top: The BBC as a whole has not been a model of gender equality. It became clear in 2017 and 2018, when the UK government forced the BBC to be more transparent about its costs, that most male executives at the organization were making much more money than female executives; Carrie Gracie, the BBC’s China editor, resigned upon learning that she was making about 50 percent less than male peers. Despite the bad publicity, the pay issue hasn’t been resolved, and the BBC is now under formal investigation. In some ways, the marketing of the 50:50 Project can be seen as an effort to bolster the BBC’s image after a flood of bad press. But it’s clear that that’s not all or even mostly what it is, because it is working — in part because it’s driven by journalists already working inside the BBC rather than being ordained by management.

This week the BBC released a report on how it’s doing, one year in. The top line:

The BBC announced the 50:50 Challenge in April 2018. The aim was twofold. First, how many English language teams from across news, current affairs and topical programming could sign up to 50:50 [The program was voluntary; by the end of April 2019, 500 teams had signed up.] Second, how many of those teams could reach 50% women contributors in April 2019 in the content they could control?

For teams who have been part of the initiative for 12 months or more, 74% reached 50% female representation in April 2019. A clear majority of the remaining 26% were above 40% female representation.

This is how the challenge works:

We collect data to affect change. Teams self-monitor their content and use the resulting data to set benchmarks and monitor performance against them. The data is gathered as content is produced with the aim of increasing engagement and motivation so it can form part of a team’s regular editorial conversations. Teams then share monthly data with the rest of the BBC in a spirit of positive competition and collaboration.

Measure what you control. We measure only the parts of BBC content that we control. In news, this means we do not count people who are central to the stories that we are covering on any given day. For example, we do not count the Prime Minister when she has given a speech or the only eyewitness to a bomb. Without these people, we cannot tell the stories and we have no control over who they are. But we count everyone else — reporters, analysts, academics, case studies — anyone who is helping us to report and analyze the news. Everyone who does count, counts as one.

Never compromise on quality. The best contributor is always used, regardless of their impact on a team’s 50:50 numbers. Editorial excellence is always the priority. The 50:50 Project aims to help content-makers discover new female and male contributors to reflect the audiences they serve and strengthen the BBC’s journalism and content.

Here are some of the findings and themes from the report:

There were challenges in certain topic areas.

For instance, “Outlets heavily reliant on BBC reporters and correspondents for their content reported that they found it more demanding to reach 50:50 over a month period. (This suggests that the BBC has work to do on equality in hiring.)


News, current affairs and topical programs fed back that they were finding certain topic areas, such as politics and business, more challenging to reach 50% women representation.

Historically, both sectors have been male heavy. Therefore, the BBC’s regular experts have tended to be men. BBC content-makers identified this early on and have been working together to increase the pool of regular contributors. The political and business units have been instrumental in assisting other BBC teams’ searches for expert women in these areas.

“We’ve had a positive response from political parties who now accept that this is how BBC News operates and have been more imaginative in which spokespeople they put up for interview,” Miranda Holt, the assistant editor of the BBC’s live political programs, said.

Sports was another male-dominated area. Last May, when the sports news team joined the 50:50 challenge, “we were around 85 percent men, 15 percent women when we first looked at our figures so I would never have imagined we would get anywhere near 50:50 within a year,” said Helen Brown, assistant editor for sports TV news. “We’re managing it.” The team is up to 43 percent female contributors. “There is no doubt our output has been improved by taking part in this,” Brown said. “We question our decisions more now, so as a result, we end up with more creative programs that reflect our audience.

Some success in foreign languages.

The original focus of the 50:50 challenge was on English-language programs, but World Service Languages, which broadcasts in more than 40 other languages, ended up participating as well.

For some services, it was felt that cultural differences could make 50:50 a near impossibility…BBC Arabic joined in July 2018 when it had less than 20% female representation. The teams set themselves a target of 30% which they surpassed in August 2018 and maintained ever since. They are now striving for 50% and in April 2019 reached 46% across their output.

BBC Hindi Radio, meanwhile, had 25 percent female contributors in March 2018. “The team introduced a daily huddle to discuss stories from women’s perspectives and how female characters could lead the storytelling,” said Fiona Crack, head of central services for world service languages. “Data led conversations about female engagement on Facebook, with teams and from management also made it clear it was a priority.” In April 19, 51 percent of contributors to Hindi Radio were female.

It applies to music, too.

BBC Scotland Music entered the 50:50 challenge “to see if the methodology could be adapted to content that was not predominantly speech. It was agreed that vocal and instrumental artists as well as composers should be measured, with the three core 50:50 ideas still applying — collect data to affect change, measure what you control and never compromise on quality.” Here’s Sharon Mair, editor of radio, music, and events for BBC Scotland:

The act of physically counting the number of female artists vs. male artists makes it front of mind when you are structuring programs — the essence of 50:50.

Many genres of music, especially going way back, were dominated by male musicians and composers for example classical music, but this can be balanced out across output and that is what we think about every day, to deliver a music experience for our audience that is truly reflective.

Audiences are noticing.

When the BBC surveyed nationally representative audience samples, a third of respondents said that they’d noticed an increase in the number of women they see and hear on BBC programming.

Younger audiences were more likely to welcome this: “The younger age groups, 16-34s in particular, say they were more likely to enjoy content more as a result of a better gender balance.” One in six people over the age of 55, however, “say they watched or listened less as a result of changes in the gender balance.”

The challenge spreads to other organizations.

More than 20 partners worldwide have joined the 50:50 Challenge. The ones willing to be named publicly, to date: 7Digital, ABC News, BFBS, Edelman PR, Falmouth University, the Financial Times, Fortune, Lansons, Lithuanian Radio and Television, National Film School and Television School, RFA, Somethin’ Else, STV, VOA, VRT, Whistledown, Wisebuddah, WNYC, YFM, and YLE.

You can read the full report here.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     May 16, 2019, 2:17 p.m.
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