Ros Atkins talks about how he started the BBC’s 50:50 programme and why gender equality is something everyone should campaign for.
Presenter Ros Atkins is the driving force behind the 50:50 campaign that began at the BBC but has now spread to organisations around the globe.
Like all the best ideas it’s a simple one: to increase female representation on air.
He says: “As long as I can remember I’ve been aware there’s more men on the news than women. When I joined the BBC at 27 I became more aware of it. But I didn’t know how to do anything about it.
“In 2016 I heard one of the flagship news programmes on the radio and it had no female voices on it at all. I knew we could do better than that.
“Then on a BBC News leadership trip to California I was introduced to firms using data in all sorts of interesting ways to influence behaviour. And on the plane home I began to sketch out an idea for how we could monitor gender representation at the BBC.”
He started by implementing his plan on his own programme, Outside Source. “I became fixated on the idea of proof,” he says. “If we could prove that it’s possible on my programme then that would give me the foundation to take it to others.”
He started measuring the number of female faces and voices on Outside Source at the start of 2017. The result for January was 39 per cent. By April they’d achieved parity. Having proved it was possible he started suggesting colleagues copy his example.
Now 600 teams across the BBC have signed up to 50:50. Another 50 organisations have adopted it too. And businesses schools in London and at Harvard University are studying the success of the scheme.
So what are the lessons for others? First of all Ros didn’t pursue the hard sell. There was no arm-twisting involved. “It only works if people want to do it,” he says. And key to that was making it simple. The monitoring system is easy to use and does not add to anyone’s workload significantly. And Ros emphasises that it’s also easy for anyone to drop out of the scheme. But because signing up isn’t a huge commitment, they are actually more likely to adopt it in the first place, and then stick with it.
Ros showed it could work in his team. But once the bosses gave it their backing the scheme really flew. BBC director general Tony Hall backed the project with full-time staff.
50:50 also benefited from being generated on the shop floor. It wasn’t a bright idea handed down by management. Instead it came from a journalist who knows what will work for other journalists and understands the pressures and practicalities they must juggle.
Eyebrows may be raised by a man driving through a gender equality project. Certainly Ros says he’s encountered surprised faces when he leads meetings on the topic. Given his name (he’s Cornish and it’s short for the Celtic name Roslyn) and the subject matter people sometimes expect Ros to be a woman! But Ros has shown that dads like him can successfully drive change on gender. “I’m acutely aware that I’m a man when I’m doing 50:50,” he says. “It would be easy to get the tone wrong. I hope we haven’t done that.”
He took steps to avoid striking the wrong tone. “Right at the beginning I went to see two senior women at the BBC, I asked for feedback and told them to give it to me straight. They suggested some changes that I took on board of course. But they backed it.”
Ros is very clear about the benefits for both men and women of gender equality. “I’m promoting an idea that I don’t obviously benefit from,” says Ros. “But there are benefits for men in that your journalism benefits if you broaden your contacts book. It makes our content better, we connect with our audiences better if we better reflect the public we seek to serve.” Organisations that reflect their customers better tend to thrive.
“People say they want things with regards to gender equality, but often, for a range of reasons, they don’t happen,” he frowns. There’s no country in the world where gender equality has been achieved. “In 2016 I was doing quite a good job of nodding approvingly from the sidelines at initiatives around gender equality. But I realised that I wanted to be more active than that.
“I am proud of it. I did it because I wanted to change something I care about. Now I can see that change.”