Tackling the Under-representation of Women in Media

women empowerment

Around the world, women are far less likely than men to be seen in the media. As subjects of stories, women only appear in a quarter of television, radio, and print news. In a 2015 report, women made up a mere 19% of experts featured in news stories and 37% of reporters telling stories globally. As behavioral scientists studying women’s underrepresentation in the workplace, we know that this gender-imbalanced picture of society can reinforce and perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes. It is clear that the media must change how it reflects the world – but who can change media itself?

For over two years, journalists and producers across the BBC have been tackling the gender representation issue by rethinking whom they put in front of the camera, with the goal of achieving 50:50 gender representation every month. “Outside Source”– Ros Atkins’ nightly primetime news program that started the effort in 2017 — took its representation of on-air contributors from 39% women to 50% within four months. Today, 500 BBC shows and teams have joined the so-called 50:50 Project. In April 2019, 74% of the English-language programs that had been involved in 50:50 for a year or more reached 50%+ female contributors on their shows.

How did an initiative that started in the news room (not the board room), by a white British man (not a D&I expert), come to thrive in an organization that has ongoing, public challenges related to gender equity (e.g., their gender pay gap)?

In order to understand how the 50:50 Project worked and what its effects have been, we conducted over 35 hours of interviews with more than 25 journalists, producers, presenters, and top leaders at the BBC. We’ve found three key lessons that are relevant for any manager or leader aiming to shake up the status quo and improve diversity, equality, and inclusion in their organization.

1. Start with yourself

After more than 20 years as a journalist, Ros Atkins found himself stuck in a constant state of trying: “My colleagues and I accepted that representing women equally in our journalism was a desirable goal, but we had also accepted that it wasn’t possible. Year after year, we were making an effort while not making anywhere near the progress we desired.”

This problem is all too common in organizations. While many people might want to make a difference on issues of diversity, there is little concrete change. Shifting out of the sense that “things should be different” to asking “what can I do differently” is key. Psychologically, this is the distinction between bystanders and confronters. Bystanders observe a wrong but tend to be relatively unlikely to address it because they question whether they are the right person to act, whether it is the right time, or whether someone else will step up. Those who confront, on the other hand, act on the wrongs they see.

Atkins got his team to shift from bystander to confronter by focusing on what they were doing to contribute to gender bias in the media: “The very real obstacles to achieving gender-equal representation had morphed into justifications for not getting there… I wanted to prove that we could make our journalism better and more popular through fair representation.”

News shows typically have little control over the newsmakers featured in the day’s major stories, but they do control the array of contributors, experts, and reporters they turn to every day. By zeroing in on this aspect, Atkins was able to focus his team’s efforts on specific, changeable behaviors. All the team had to do was record the gender representation of contributors each day (initially on a post-it note, which eventually got entered into in a spreadsheet), and track their progress toward the goal of hitting 50:50 monthly. The golden rule remained to always put the best person on air, regardless of gender. What changed was that the team pushed themselves to find the women who represented the best and got them on air.

This is not to say that starting with oneself is easy. There are many social pressures that can arise; in this case, some within the BBC expressed initial skepticism of a gender diversity initiative headed up by a white male. However, our interviewees noted that the proof was in the numbers, which continued to balance out, and in the credibility Atkins had when he spoke about the 50:50 project goals.

2. Follow the data

Atkins waited until his show achieved equal gender representation for multiple months before telling anyone else about the project. As a result, he had evidence to counteract the concerns that were raised among other BBC teams. Whenever skeptics 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,” Atkins, producer and editor Rebecca Bailey, and editor Jonathan Yerushalmy 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.

Across shows, the one universal insight echoed by everyone we interviewed was the value of collecting their own data and following it over time. We heard this from people who initially argued that they were already doing a good job of representing women on screen, only to find themselves at around 30% women after actually counting; from those who hit 50% women quickly, and then followed their data and found themselves backsliding; and from those who had yet to hit the mark. Data serves as an essential check on one’s gut instincts, countering overconfidence, sustaining motivation, and encouraging goal pursuit.

The 50:50 data collection method is simple, requires minimal effort, and is easy to embed in a daily routine. Because the data is self-collected, it enhances a team’s sense of control and ownership over their content. In addition, public monthly reporting and sharing of each participating team’s data taps into editors’ and producers’ competitive spirit, and creates accountability as no team wants other teams to see them stagnate or backslide.

3. Believe in others’ ability to change their behavior

The 50:50 Project has grown to 500 BBC teams and to over 20 international media partners. How did that happen? According to Angela Henshall, the 50:50 Project’s external partnerships manager, “We weren’t trying to change anyone – we wanted to give them a tool to change themselves.”

From the outset, the 50:50 founders exhibited a growth mindset toward their colleagues, believing that people can change if they have the opportunity, tools and support to do so. Research finds that those who hold a growth mindset toward others are more likely to confront specific instances of bias and are more open to discussing inequality generally.

No team was mandated to join the project, but teams were instead invited to opt in. Teams decided what the “right” data to collect was for their show, and then reported their own data through a monthly BBC-wide dashboard. Most utilized the straightforward Excel spreadsheet that Outside Source started with. No teams were shamed or punished for their results. Progress was celebrated, and teams that struggled were offered support. Teams that resisted were reminded that they could opt out of the project anytime – so far only one team has done so.

Top leadership played a role, too. In April 2018, Tony Hall, the Director General of the BBC, issued the 50:50 challenge to report results publicly a year later, and the message was centered on encouragement to change, not a mandate from above. The number of teams joining the challenge increased afterward. However, the viability of the 50:50 project’s continued expansion is a constant question, as gaining organizational financial support is still a slow and ongoing effort.

The 50:50 project solely acts on gender representation. It will not solve the problem of gender equality more broadly. But it shows that change can result from embracing a growth mindset, providing a simple and tangible tool for achieving change without mandating it, and giving colleagues agency and ownership over the process. We hope these insights inspire others striving to reduce bias and fix underrepresentation of women in their workplace.

By Aneeta RattanSiri ChilaziOriane GeorgeacIris Bohnet

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