Luba Kassova, author of From Outrage to Opportunity, speaks to the BBC’s Lara Joannides about how to take the BBC’s 50:50 The Equality Project beyond improving representation in terms of numbers, to challenging stereotypical portrayal of women in news. Lucinda Jordaan reports
This post, based on a conversation during a webinar organised by Emma Goodman in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Media Partnerships’ team, dives into some of the issues highlighted by Kassova’s recent award-winning solution-based report into gender and the intersectionality of gender and race in news, From Outrage to Opportunity.
Lara Joannides: I’ll begin with a brief explanation about how 50:50 works: it’s a self-monitoring system that we’ve developed at the BBC, and that many other organisations are now using. Essentially, content makers and journalists count their own content – whether it’s a written article, a video piece or a half-hour long program – it starts with them counting the number of men and women in each program, aiming to get to 50% of each. It is very simple, which is crucial for getting people in very busy newsrooms, with lots of deadlines and other priorities, involved in shining a spotlight on the lack of representation of women, and to give them something to work towards.
It’s really important for us that 50:50 remains as simple as possible to keep it sustainable. Particularly after George Floyd’s death in 2020, diversity and inclusion initiatives became such a big focus for everyone, but soon, these things drop off the priority list. We want this to be something that becomes embedded in journalists’ workflows – part and parcel of the work we do every day, such as checking copyright or checking editorial guidelines. It needs to be non-negotiable, but something that is achievable for teams to do.
However, we have noticed that as time goes by, depending on their personalities and their work loads, some teams have wanted to take it further. If teams are able to record the role that the contributor is playing and the subject matter they’re speaking on, for example, they do include that in their monitoring. This isn’t done consistently across the whole BBC so we can’t report on it at that level, but within their own teams, some will be counting whether a female contributor was speaking as an expert or not.
For example, in a cost-of-living story, she could be a mother doing the food shop, which is quite a stereotype, or a financial expert who was talking to us about the change in inflation. This kind of breakdown is really helpful. We also offer the possibility to count time on air, as well as number of appearances, to give an idea of prominence. But the majority of teams choose not to do that because it makes the 50:50 counting much more arduous and slower.
Monitoring beyond the math
It is crucial that 50:50 is voluntary, and flexible: it can’t be a top-down scheme forced upon journalists by management, as it’s really difficult to make them collect the numbers and we spend a lot of our time chasing, and then when they do get the numbers, it just becomes a box ticking exercise, which is pointless. So, we make sure that we work with the teams to suit what they want to work on, and what they want to focus on, and then what’s also achievable for them within their resources and their workload.
Luba Kassova: Would you say that journalists and editors talk about the portrayal of women – is it part of the vocabulary when you talk about representation of women on air and in coverage?
Yes, definitely. 50:50 is supposed to be a starting point. It is very simplistic – it’s numbers on a spreadsheet, and, as we all know, it’s not just about the numbers. For us it’s about starting the conversation, but also ensuring that the conversation continues. Because a team is doing 50:50, and because they have it on their to-do list every day to discuss the numbers at the top of the editorial meeting, we want it to be something that they take further.
For example, before I joined 50:50 I worked for a BBC Africa youth program, and we were doing 50:50, and we were easily hitting the target every month, but then we took a step back and looked at our numbers more closely. We realised that when we spoke to young people, they were often young girls, because at the age of 11, 12, 13, they were so excited to be on TV and show us what they were doing, whereas maybe the teenage boys were more reluctant. And then more of the adult contributors we were speaking to were men: politicians, music stars, or businesspeople.
Approaching a different perspective
We decided we had to change that, and we started making an extra effort to speak to inspirational women, such as a female pilot in Africa, or the youngest female mayor in Tanzania, for example, and then making an extra effort to speak to younger boys. Because we realised that even though on the surface it seemed like we were hitting our targets, we weren’t actually doing what we intended to.
We want teams to use 50:50 as an opening of a doorway, but they have to take initiative and do it themselves. Among the 700 teams doing it at the BBC there is an array of different attitudes and approaches to 50:50 that we grapple with, and I’m sure within our partner organisations as well. We do have champions across the BBC who are driving these conversations forward.
LK: Given what we know about the additional barriers for women of colour, are you monitoring data intersectionally (intersecting race and gender); and what are your plans to help tackle the challenges that women of colour specifically face?
For us, 50:50 should be about culture change and changing the way we think, so that we make different decisions, whether that’s editorial decisions about who features in the content, or whether that’s management and hiring decisions. So I think it needs to be something that we start to think of differently in terms of what is the data for – is it to publish and show how great we’re doing, or to hold ourselves accountable, or to actually be used as a tool for change? The other important thing that we all need to work on is seeing intersectionality and expanding our diversity monitoring in our work as all supporting the same goal.
There is a risk that it becomes a trade-off: when we expanded the 50:50 monitoring to include ethnicity and disability, we were worried that the gender figures would drop because people would be putting more effort elsewhere. But it shouldn’t be one or the other, they all work together and should be part of a holistic approach. We need to work on changing attitudes towards diversity and inclusion so that it’s not just about ticking the boxes, but trying to find better ways of working, better ways of storytelling and changing the culture in our organisation. That is something that we’re working on with our new team.
The News Development team has existed before, but we’ve now branched out to make sure that we’re looking at talent, development, culture, and diversity and inclusion to make it more specific and structured so we don’t have initiatives that pop up but then don’t get followed or measured, and fall off the wayside. This is going to be part and parcel of the formal strategy that feeds into the BBC’s wider strategy and culture. Inclusion is an important part of that – it’s not just a numbers game; it’s also about changing the way we think, changing the way we hire, and how we talk to each other.
(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. The writer is a regular contributor to World Editors Forum, WAN-IFRA.)