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How The BBC Gender Balanced… Everything, Everywhere, Fast

Dear reader, if you work for a media company, anywhere, read this and pass it on. You could change more than your organisation; you could change the world. And anyone who watches the news will find it interesting too!

In these times of companies swearing well-meaning oaths to balance their businesses, it’s great to get inspired by organisations that just do it – and talk about it afterwards. The UK’s public broadcasting corporation, the much-beloved BBC, is one. In three short years, it looks and sounds entirely different to watchers around the globe. While the UK’s Johnson government has been sabre-rattling about the BBC’s demise, its twin successes in soldiering on through the Covid-19 crisis while gender balancing its voices to better reflect the public it serves may be the perfect defence.

The media has long struggled to reflect its consuming public. A 2015 global report found that women were only 19% of experts cited in the news and 37% of reporters filing stories. Yet in the past three years, the BBC has managed to dramatically and almost single-handedly balance these ratios “on-screen, on-air and in lead roles across all genres from drama to news.” The results are visible for all to see. Interestingly, they did it without the usual tropes companies use – the big diversity programmes and promises, the roll out of unconscious bias training or endless sessions aimed at empowering women. What did they do instead?

Nothing that unusual. In fact, it’s how any change program in organisations actually happens. It just isn’t what you typically see being preached by Diversity & Inclusion practitioners to increase representation and shift cultures. It may not please the people calling for a revolution. It’s a fairly traditional management-handbook set of three steps: a leadership vision, a data-driven proof of concept, and then a healthy bit of internal role modelling and competition to get it rolled out. It’s just not often applied to gender balance and diversity management.

Many of the out-groups lobbying for a seat at the boardroom table may not appreciate all the takeaways. But it’s not as though their efforts were in vain. The shift was the result of decades of increasing lobbying, pressure, political regulation – and a bit of crisis thrown in for good measure. The UK’s gender pay gap legislation was voted in in 2017. As a public corporation, the BBC came under particular scrutiny. The same year, a scandal brought gender issues to the top of the agenda when one of the BBC’s top women, China Editor Carrie Gracie, quit and brought and won an equal pay case against the Corporation. At the same time, the winds of the #MeToo movement swept through the media globally. Crises propel change, as we are seeing now. But for change to become truly transformative, it’s usually because everyone got on board. And that’s where the BBC seems to have become a model of how to not waste a multiplicity of crises.

Here’s what happened.

1.   It Started With (Male) Leadership

The BBC’s change agent wasn’t, as many might expect, a group of increasingly powerful women (think The Morning Show). It was a man with a successful show and a commitment to change. Ros Atkins is a classic, Oxbridge-educated BBC type. A long-time staffer and presenter with a couple of decades at the Beeb, as the British lovingly call their public broadcasting service, his “Outside Source” was a well-established radio and TV news program. In 2017, having listened to a 2-hour litany of male voices on BBC radio, and with the backdrop of the #MeToo’s seismic global thunder, he decided to gender balance his show’s on-air contributors. It took him four months to go from 39% female contributors to 50%. Then he began to share his lessons and suggest some of his colleagues might want to do the same… Because of who he was, they listened.

Crucially, the BBC’s Director-General Tony Hall was brought in and bought in publicly at an early stage, as was Head of Content Charlotte Moore. While the beauty of the initiative was that it ‘came from the business’ rather than ‘from the top,’ it was quickly supported and enabled by enthusiastic leadership from key respected figures across the organisation. This allowed it to spread – fast. This kind of visible organisational cultural nudging is what a new report from Catalyst points to as the essential step in empowering the vast majority of men (86%) who want to fight sexism to engage. Once they’re in, the barriers to everyone else joining in disappear.

In just three years, 600 BBC shows and teams have joined what became the 50:50 Project. In March 2020, 78% of the programs that had been involved in 50:50 for two years or more gender balanced their shows’ contributors.

Think about this for a moment. What the BBC recognised was that in all walks of life, on every subject under the sun that the BBC covers, there are highly expert, knowledgeable women at the top of their game, more than able to comment on air, who until now had been left aside in preference for their male colleagues. All it took was for this to be recognised. This change in on-air contributors was possible because society itself has changed. And don’t think it’s at the expense of the quality of the commentary. Living in the UK as I do, the sheer quality of the newly illuminated female expertise on every subject simply shines through.

TAKEAWAY No.1: Most companies appoint women and/or people of colour to run their diversity pushes, but I’ve long argued that this misses the point of who needs to change. If you’re in a company dominated by any given profile (in the case of the BBC, educated, white, British men), it actually helps to have one of them lead the charge for change – they have the best chance at convincing the dominant group to join in. As Paul Polman successfully did, a Dutch man running Anglo-Dutch Unilever, another organisation that has achieved gender balance this year, in its global management. Another notable (but very quiet) shift has taken place at Google Images. Try typing in ‘nurse’ or ‘engineer’ into the search engine and you’ll see an entirely new and more balanced set of strategically de-stereotyped answers to your search. Smart leadership. Change doesn’t have to come from the top, but it helps if it’s seen to be driven by convinced and convincing in-group leaders.

As a momentary aside, the ‘50:50’ project title may appear excluding and unfortunate to those fighting for broader gender definitions. That’s true, but it offers an important lesson for any campaign – use phrases that are intuitively and immediately understandable to the key group you are trying to influence, and don’t confuse matters with a more nuanced and complicated message. Each imbalance corrected, each cultural shift achieved, opens the door to others.

2.   Let the Numbers Do the Talking

Like any other organisational or business project, you need to know where you want to go, how to measure success and how to track the road to getting there. Getting a clear, data-driven understanding of current gender ratios may sound basic, but I’m routinely shocked at how companies are swamped in data but don’t understand the story it’s telling them. Or how blanket targets are set which aren’t applicable to parts of the business. Realistic targets, a legible scorecard and regular tracking are the most basic building blocks of project management.  But when it comes to gender balance, they are often either lacking or monitored by the wrong people, or people without the power to shift them. Getting the very simplest of relevant metrics to the people who have a degree of control over them, and in a visual and consistent way, was a central pillar of the BBC’s very data-driven 50:50 project management.

The exercise was arguably simpler for the BBC then it might be in the tech sector or construction. This is, after all, about balancing the BBC’s product – it’s output – rather than its internal balance. But what is clear is that every department had a slightly different notion of what they needed to measure – and identified it for themselves as it began to roll out.

“The choice of what data to track was based on what audiences would see, read or hear,” explains Nina Goswami, the BBC’s Creative Diversity Lead for 50:50 and News. “For example, the orchestras monitor their musicians, phone-in shows count their callers, news teams monitor reporters and experts, and in digital content we count photos, videos and quotes on websites.”  

Data is tracked on a monthly basis, and the results shared internally, generating a healthy bit of competition between departments. By March 2020, two thirds (66%) of participating departments had achieved the target of a 50/50 male/female balance of the contributors they had defined. Up from just a third (34%) when they began monitoring. Time and consistent tracking helped solidify these gains. Once cultural change takes hold it is sustainable, although monitoring remains an essential tool, as it is for all organisational targets and metrics.

“50:50 is now used across the BBC and has become a global initiative, with more than 65 other organisations in 20 countries now taking part”, explains Ros Atkins. “And, while it’s far bigger than I’d dared hope it could become when I first talked to my Outside Source colleagues, it is still based on the same ideas of measuring what we control, sharing our data and committing to change.”

TAKEAWAY No. 2: Data is any change agent’s best friend. Get the data, know your data, measure change with data, and keep monitoring. Spare the virtue-signalling noise, the pious promises, the woman promoted to run diversity. All that belongs in the movies, not in management.

3.   Sell Success (Not Bias & Blame)

The pilot ‘Outside Source’ team took their time to assess their efforts, and the impact of the balance they achieved before they tried to sell the idea to their colleagues. Atkins and his producer and editor Rebecca Bailey, along with editor Jonathan Yerushalmy, knew they would need to answer concerns raised by other BBC teams. An HBR case study of the team explains that “whenever sceptics suggested that ‘there aren’t enough female experts,’ or ‘this will add too much time and work for the producers,’ or ‘this might reduce the quality of our journalism,’ they had simple counter-arguments at the ready: proof that their team achieved the goal, happy producers, the experience of a hassle-free data gathering methodology, and a highly-rated show.“

Rather than accusing an organisation or colleagues of harbouring systemic bias, which is how many organisations are being asked to tackle these issues today, the BBC took a more constructive route. Atkins’ idea was to invite people to tap into the benefits of balance by sharing what he had done, what he had learned and the measurable benefits achieved. Using the aspirational story of a well-respected, successful show, it created a positive momentum for change.

People often think the best role models for gender balance are successful women. But in fact, the best role models for gender balance are leaders of any gender who effectively balance their organisations. At the BBC that started with Ros Atkins and Tony Hall – two classic in-group guys dedicated to balancing their beats. That’s what too many organisations fail to harness at the beginning: the buy-in of their dominant groups, whatever they are.

Once the pilot had been successful, the roll out of the approach was carefully and intentionally voluntary. Leaders of different divisions were offered tools, skills and support, but they only signed up if they chose to. Angela Henshall, the 50:50 Project’s external partnerships manager, comments, “We weren’t trying to change anyone – we wanted to give them a tool to change themselves.”

The success and impact of the initial adoptees was enough to build momentum. Today, the excitement around the change is palpable across the organisation.

“In the General News Service (GNS), we see evidence of culture change becoming ‘business as usual,’” says Fran Unsworth, Director of BBC News & Current Affairs. “We’ve featured 50/50 contributors every month for a year. And BBC Languages have exhilaratingly introduced this balanced lens into 39 BBC services across 35 countries. From Singapore, Seoul and Delhi, to Kabul, Kyiv and Moscow, to Nairobi, Lagos and Cairo, BBC World Service teams are committed to showing us all of their countries and communities. These teams are creating journalism of a diversity that perhaps once felt out of range. Not anymore.”

BBC Sport, one of the more male-dominated areas when the campaign launched, created a campaign in 2019 called #ChangetheGame. It aimed at shifting perceptions of women’s sport and showcasing sportswomen across BBC outlets. “The campaign had a huge impact,” says Anna Thompson, Assistant Editor, BBC Sport, “with more than 45 million people consuming women’s sport content across BBC platforms.’

In 2019, the non-English services of the BBC took on the 50:50 Challenge in 2019. Across 95 World Service Language datasets, two thirds (65%) reached 50/50 balance by March 2020. The majority (81%) of World Service Asia teams gender balanced their contributors, proving that culture is not a credible excuse to hide imbalances behind.

TAKEAWAY No. 3: Don’t blame men for gender imbalances, engage them. Don’t accuse managers of bias (we’re all biased in some way). Equip and train them on why and what to balance and get credible, respected peers to role model how it’s done. Prove benefit.

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To measure the impact of the change on its public, BBC Audiences conducted a survey of people using a range of its online services (BBC websites, iPlayer, BBC Sounds). They found that 39% of the 2,000 people surveyed said they had noticed the shift, most notably young people. Among the 16 to 34-year-olds who represent the future of the Beeb, 40% said they ‘derived greater enjoyment’ from BBC content, as did 16 to 24-year-old women. Almost a third of women aged 25 to 34 said the change led them to consume more BBC content.

The project has been so successful that the BBC has shared the methodology with other media organisations and is working with 68 external partners who signed up to replicate the project. These include The Financial Times, ABC News, STV and Fortune. “Better representation is something the whole media industry needs to address,” says Charlotte Moore, “so it’s important to work with other broadcasters and I’ve been really pleased with their response so far.”

Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director General, doesn’t hide his pride in the project’s popularity and impact. “What I love about 50:50 is that it’s connected the work we produce with the culture of the organisation, he explains. “It shows how one great idea, properly championed, can harness a passion for change for the long term. Put simply, 50:50 has radically improved our representation of women and our programmes are all the better for it. What we’ve nurtured is a shared responsibility across the BBC and our partners.  And while the genius of the idea is the way it uses data to affect change – in fact its greatest achievement is the creative opportunities it’s inspiring.”

Of course there is more to do, and change in the balance behind the camera and in management is slower. But the BBC was designed as a mirror on society and on the world; its on-air gender balance is no longer the distorted mirror that it and most media organisations have been for far too long. This will be reflected internally too, as its external mirroring role impacts recognition of the value and possibility of balance in every organisation across the UK and more widely.

The BBC is building on the success and lessons of 50:50 to improve ethnicity and disability representation. It comes at a time when the #BLM movement has focused minds, with more than 30 teams across TV and radio signing up to pilot measuring and monitoring for these dimensions. Stay tuned.

Because the media is – and has always been – the message; the stories, voices and faces it chooses to feature are a projection of our cultural narratives and shape our understanding of the world and our shared history. The gender balancing of the UK’s public broadcasting corporation’s content may become one of the country’s most influential exports.

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