THE BBC’S 50:50 CHALLENGE: A GOOD START, BUT THE MEDIA HAS A LONG WAY TO GO BEFORE IT IS TRULY REPRESENTATIVE OF ITS AUDIENCES


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Last week the BBC released the results of its 50:50 Challenge and they demonstrate significant improvements in female representation. The 50:50 Challenge was launched in April 2018 and aims to make 50% of contributors female on all BBC programmes. Since then, over 500 programmes across the BBC have joined the challenge and 57% of them (including recent joiners) have now achieved the 50:50 goal. Programmes that have reached the target include BBC Breakfast, The Andrew Marr Show, The One Show and Politics Live. The results also showed significant progress in programmes such as Sportsday, which started with only 20% female representation last April, but has now reached an impressive 43%. Furthermore, over 20 external media companies have been inspired to adopt the BBC’s initiative, including the Financial Times and ABC News.  

Source: BBC 50:50 Challenge Results 2019

Source: BBC 50:50 Challenge Results 2019

The BBC’s Director General Tony Hall stated ‘it’s amazing to see such remarkable change in just a year; you can see and hear it right across our programming. I want the BBC to lead the way on equality and fairness and this project demonstrates what can be achieved’.

The results are a welcome break from the series of recent scandals surrounding gender equality at the BBC. For the last 2 years, the BBC has had to publish its gender pay gap statistics which have received widespread criticism. Last year, Carrie Gracie (BBC’s former China Editor) resigned upon learning that she made up to 50% less than her male peers. The issue over gender pay discrimination is yet to be resolved and the BBC is currently under formal investigation

Laura Owen, Deputy Editor of Nieman Journalism Lab suggests that in some ways, 50:50 can be seen as an attempt by the BBC to recover their reputation after this stream of negative press. However, it is clear that genuine and significant improvements are being made with the implementation of 50:50 and this should be encouraged and applauded. Indeed, as Siri Chilazi, a Harvard research fellow and gender equality specialist suggests ‘the world has a lot to learn from the 50:50 project’ and it is ‘an inspirational example of an evidence-based diversity initiative’. 

So how does it work?

The 50:50 project began in January 2017 with the TV news programme Outside Source, when presenter Ros Atkins created a self-monitoring system that spread across the BBC and became the official 50:50 Challenge in April 2018. Programmes sign up voluntarily to self-monitor their content, set benchmarks for themselves and track their performance against them. Their performance as a team is discussed in the team’s regular editorial meetings and then shared with the rest of the BBC on a monthly basis, ‘in the spirit of positive competition and collaboration’

Programmes only measure what they can control, for example if there is only one eyewitness to an event, they are not measured because the BBC has no control over who this happens to be. However, anyone who helps to report or analyse the news such as reporters, academics and analysts are counted. The BBC is determined to not compromise on quality and emphasises that the best contributor is always used. The 50:50 Challenge aims to make content producers work harder to discover new female talent, to improve the BBC’s content and better reflect their audiences.

The challenge hasn’t been easy. Programmes that rely on BBC reporters and correspondents have found it particularly demanding, suggesting that the BBC needs to do more to ensure its hiring practices encourage diversity and inclusion. Similarly, programmes that focus on particular topic areas, such as politics and business, have found it difficult to reach 50% representation, as both sectors are male dominated and the BBC’s regular contributors tend to be men. 

Sport is another male dominated area. However, it has seen huge improvements and Helen Brown, Assistant Editor TV Sports News stated ‘we were around 85% men, 15% women when we first looked at our figures so I would never have imagined we would get anywhere near 50:50 within a year’. She went on to say ‘there is no doubt our output has been improved by taking part in this’ because ‘we question our decisions more now, so as a result, we end up with more creative programmes that reflect our audience’. 

And audiences are certainly noticing. In a BBC conducted survey, 1/3 of audience members noticed the increase in women and younger audiences in particular welcomed the change, saying they were more likely to enjoy the content because of a more equal gender balance. 

But why does representation matter? 

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The media is hugely influential in informing and shaping public knowledge and opinion. The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) argues that ‘the outcome of underrepresentation is an unbalanced picture of the world, one in which women are largely absent’. For example, its 2010 report suggested that female subjects were rarely identified and represented as workers and out of 25 occupational categories, women only outnumbered men as homemakers and students. This means that ‘the picture seen through the news becomes one of a world where women are visually invisible as active participants in work outside the home’. Furthermore, research suggests that male dominated newsrooms result in particular decisions about what is newsworthy and therefore ‘news that presents a male-centred view’

In GMMP’s latest report from 2015, they found that women made up 24% of persons heard, read about or seen in newspaper, TV and radio news globally, a statistic that hadn’t changed since 2010. Women made up only 6% of political news stories, a decrease since 2010. Only 37% of stories in newspapers, TV and radio newscasts were reported by women, a statistic that hadn’t changed since 2005. The overall proportion of stories focusing on women was 10% and hadn’t increased since 2000. These statistics demonstrate the urgent need for initiatives like the 50:50 Challenge to make the media more representative. 

A Long Road Ahead

The BBC’s efforts should be celebrated, but must also be understood as the beginning of a long journey ahead. Gender equality is not the only thing that needs to be addressed and the media also needs to become more diverse in terms of race, sexuality, age, ability and social background and importantly, needs to appreciate how these different facets of identity intersect to produce overlapping forms of oppression and disadvantage. As well as asking, are 50% of contributors women, the BBC must ask what kinds of women are they? As scholar Rosalind Gill suggests, ‘most women who appear in the media are young, white, able-bodied, middle-class, apparently heterosexual and conventionally attractive’

For example, whilst younger presenters on screen are more likely to be female, there is a severe underrepresentation of women in the 50-64 age bracket (29%) and a ‘complete disappearance’ of women aged 65 years and older. According to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, even though only 7% of the UK population is privately educated, people with a private school education make up 43% of national newspaper columnists and 26% of the BBC’s most senior managers. Additionally, according to statistics produced in 2016, 94% of journalists in the UK are white. Clearly, the media has a long way to go before it is truly representative of its audiences. It’s fair to say that the 50:50 Challenge is only the beginning. 

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