Getting to 50 50

Lara Joannides talks about the BBC’s 50:50 Project and its attempts to boost the number of women experts and interviewees on BBC programmes and make the broadcaster more representative of its audience.

BBC 50:50 logo


The BBC’s 50:50 Project started with one news programme, Outside Source, which decided to trial efforts to improve the number of women contributors through data monitoring. That approach has since spread across the corporation and the BBC has described its 50:50 Project as “the biggest collective action on increasing women’s representation in BBC content that there’s ever been”. The project also aims to inspire and assist other media organisations to equally represent women and men in their content.

More than 500 teams including several thousand journalists and programme-makers at the BBC are involved across TV, radio and digital and from news, sport, factual, children’s, science and music, including all regional radio stations.

Teams self-monitor their content and use the data to set benchmarks and monitor performance against them. They measure what they can control ie not those making the news, but commentators, panellists and guests. The data is gathered daily with different columns for, for example, presenters, correspondents, live guests, people interviewed in news packages, phone-in speakers and texts read out on air, but the project works on monthly totals. Data is shared across the organisation in a bit to boost accountability and encourage a positive spirit of competition.

Addressing underrepresentation

Lara Joannides, 50:50’s Project Lead, spoke about it at a recent Forward Ladies webinar session. She said that experts were shared across the BBC to increase the number of women experts they could draw on and in recognition of their underrepresentation. The corporation works with 53 external partners, including academic institutions, law firms, PR agencies and media organisations.  The work is therefore spreading outside the BBC and outside media.

Lara JoannidesJoannides said there were a few reasons which make it more difficult to get women on air: sometimes it is because they are not put forward by the organisations they work for; sometimes it is because they don’t feel confident; some are worried about negative social media attention; and for some other issues are a problem, such as lack of childcare cover. The BBC had worked with producers to address the issues it can help with. As a public service broadcaster it cannot provide training to a specific group, but it does provide open days where people can get a taste of what it is like to be interviewed. These can be regionally based or focused on a specific area such as science.  “At first being interviewed on air can seem intimidating,” says Joannides, “but once you have done it a few times you realise that it is not too difficult.”

Joannides added that invitations to ad hoc open days tend to come from particular producers or areas such as business so it is important to get onto their contacts list, for instance, through registering on the 50:50 database. It is just a question of filling in the entry form where you fill in information about your area of expertise, where you are based, searchable keywords which show the areas you could talk confidently about etc. Joannides said the BBC is particularly looking for female experts in male-dominated fields such as engineering, STEM and sport and she added that it was important to state if you speak an additional language for BBC World Service content.

Joannides said programme makers are also trying to change how they worked so interviewees don’t have to come into the studio so much and can do interviews on Skype or Whatsapp Live, which helps people with busy lives and school pick-ups, etc.

 Benefits of different perspectives

Joannides said the project had done a special 50:50 month last year to get more teams to sign up and 76% of teams who took part managed to reach the 50% target for female contributors. This has dropped a little in the interim, but the general trajectory is upwards with programme makers saying it has benefited them, giving their programmes a fresher feel and affecting the type of content they cover and the angles they cover stories from. This has driven audiences up, particularly online audiences, said Joannides. It has also changed the people press offices are fielding for programmes. The conversation is changing around diversity on air, she added, with all-male panels now being called out publicly.

The project is also looking at underrepresentation of other groups, for instance, people from minority groups, those with disabilities and younger people.

“As a public service broadcaster, the BBC is held to a higher standard and has more responsibility to fix inequalities than others,” said Joannides. “We are trying to set a standard and we have to represent the audiences that listen to and watch us.”

*To find out more email [email protected].

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