This journalist created a system to make sure more female experts got on air

December 7, 2018

BBC anchor Ros Atkins wondered why his organization set such high standards for production, accuracy and political balance but had no enforced standard for how many women appeared on BBC programs.

In 2017 on his own program, only 39 percent of the guests and experts were women. But today, 346 BBC content teams online, on TV and on the radio — involving 3,000 BBC staff — have committed to being certain that half of all contributors are women.

A year and a half later, every program that committed to increasing the percentage of women who appear as commentators, analysts and experts produced measurable results. The movement that Atkins started has spread from his program across the news division, to documentaries, children's and science programs, and music shows. 

And it happened without any boss demanding it, without diversity consultants recommending it or without an uprising from the public.

Instead, it started with a road trip and a touch of outrage.

Tired of "a constant state of trying"

A few years ago, as he was driving from London to his parent's home in Cornwall, Atkins tuned into a BBC radio program.

"It was an hour program and I kept thinking there was going to be a woman somewhere in the show. There wasn't," Atkins told Poynter in a phone interview. "At some level, we were tolerating this. I was asking, 'Why we are not more sensitive to that?'"

His own sensitivity to gender issues started as a teenager. 

"From the time I was 11, I was obsessed with the news and I told my teachers I would be a journalist," he said. But the BBC he watched growing up was dominated by male presenters and guests. It was — and in much of the media world today, still is — the norm. It was Atkins' mother who suggested male domination didn't have to be the norm.

When he was 16, she gave him a book that shaped how he thought about the world around him: "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf — a feminist book at the time.

"My mother was a feminist."

Her influence shaped his choice of college majors, which included the study of gender issues. In 2014, he reported the documentary "All That Stands in the Way," that told the story of the lives of four teenaged girls Jordan, Lesotho, Iceland and the United Kingdom. In the documentary, Atkins appears walking his two daughters to school, explaining the documentary's goal is to find out why gender has such an influence on our lives.

He said his daughters have "brought that into sharp focus for me." He said he wanted to know why his daughters "maybe won't have the same chance that a boy would."

Atkins anchors the BBC's "Outside Source" TV program, among the most popular in the BBC News division. Early in his career, he said, he talked to bosses about his concerns that so few women appeared as experts or contributors in BBC shows.  The issue is no surprise to researchers who have, for years, documented the imbalance of men and women who appear on BBC properties. University of London researcher and professor Lis Howell found that on British media, "The overall ratio for experts remains at around three men to every one woman. Male reporters and presenters both outnumber women by two to one." In fact, Professor Howell found, the BBC was moving backward in including women in some programs. Professor Howell said in 2015, "Broadcasters unfailingly mean well but there is something about the nature of news broadcasting which means expert woman just don’t get their fair share of the airwaves and we are trying to find out why.”

Atkins said that those years of studies and criticism didn't seem to be changing things fast enough, "There was a narrative that we had made considerable strides in including women in our programs. On a fundamental day-to-day level, I didn’t think we made as much progress as we could." 

"We were in a constant state of trying." 

In 2016, Atkins made a trip to Silicon Valley and was fascinated with how tech companies constantly collect data.

"Data was pervasive in the way they work," he said.

He said he imagined what would happen if he could collect data on how many women appear on his program. And, as he saw in Silicon Valley, that data could be shared with his co-workers daily.  Ross and his producers, Jonathan Yerushalmy and Rebecca Bailey, decided they would shoot for 50/50. Their goal: to have half of all the show contributors they chose to be female. The data would tell the truth the popular narrative didn't.

"When we do not hit the mark we feel it," he said.

Potential pushback

Atkins said he anticipated a number of reasons that colleagues might not like daily tabulations of who appeared on programs. 

  • Time: "I imagined if we asked people to measure three or four things, they would say we don't have time. I thought if we asked for the world we would get nothing. So we started counting one thing — gender diversity — something that would take a minute or two, no more, each day.
  • Quota journalism: Atkins anticipated that his colleagues would resist a mandate that might limit who hosts interviewed. "We established one clear rule: the best guest always go on air. This would not be journalism by quota, it would be an effort to improve our contacts and to identify subjects where we almost always talked to men and find some brilliant women as alternatives."
  • Don't force it: Journalists resist being forced to comply with mandates from on high.  Atkins said, "If management, diversity leaders or HR people go and speak to journalists, the journalists start pushing back saying 'You don't understand our experience, you don't understand the pressures we are under day to day.' … We made it voluntary." No other programs had to participate, he said, but within a couple of years, more than 80 programs did.

The results
In January 2017, 39 percent of the BBC's "Outside Source" contributors were women.

In February, the number rose to 44 percent.

In March, the number was up to 47 percent. 

By April, 51 percent of "Outside Source"’s contributors were women. In just four months, simply by keeping count and holding themselves accountable, the program reached its goal.

Eighteen months later, he said, 51 percent of his program's experts and guests are women.

"I was certain that if teams measured who was in each of their programs, and then shared the results among themselves immediately after broadcast, the effect would be potent," he said. 

Atkins says keeping score is the key to the improvements.

"All of our lives we consume news with many more men than women. So if you watched a program that includes 45 percent women, you said 'Wow, there were lots of women in there,'" he said. "At that point it is easy for a narrative to set in that we were at gender equity but the numbers show we had a problem and we solved it. The numbers keep you honest."

And one other number caught everyone's attention. Atkins' program, which already was highly rated, grew even more.

"My program on the UK has great ratings, up 20 percent from where we are four years ago. I can’t draw causality from the 50/50 project and where ratings we are now," he said. "But sometimes there is a nervousness that you will compromise on the product and your journalism."

He said the numbers show that the changes his program has made in selecting guests certainly didn't send viewers away and likely makes the programs way more attractive to younger viewers, who he says are much more sensitive to gender equity issues.

How he counted
Atkins said he didn't include news stories in his monthly count because the program has no control over the politicians and eyewitnesses and spokespeople who make news. He also didn't count BBC anchors. He was more interested in what he and his producers could control: the experts they included. It was a simple count at the end of every month.

"We’d count across a month to allow for the ebb and flow of stories and guests. That was it," he said. "'Outside Source' is an hour; it takes a minute to measure." 

Coaching reluctant women experts
Atkins' team expanded its contact list by first locating the best experts who were women, then working with those women to help them be comfortable on camera.

"We would ask, 'What are the reasons you might not feel so comfortable?'" Ros said. "It was rarely 'You are going to ask me a difficult question.' They were experts on the subject matter. It was often 'Are my hands in the right position?' or 'Is this jacket OK?'"

Atkins recalled that a "very" senior defense commentator who is excellent on Twitter and in the paper said she didn't do TV because it made her uncomfortable. Atkins said he invited her to come to the TV studio to stand next to him while he rehearsed. She stood near him on set for 45 minutes before she went on the air.

"She was brilliant," Atkins said. "What we are trying to do is make people comfortable enough to admit there might be a small thing they are concerned about. If you do that within two or three experiences they are as at home as people who have been doing it for a very long time." 

The idea spreads
By the end of 2017, more BBC programs were keeping count as Atkins' program does. The BBC also pushed the 50/50 goal to international shows on the BBC World Service including BBC Persian, BBC Russian and BBC Hindi. Within two months, Atkins said, every program that has measured has seen progress toward the goal.

And the content shows up on the show's website. Online producers track gender diversity in bylines, sources and, importantly, photos. On Wednesday, of the 15 images on the "Outside Source" front page, 11 included women in the picture.

 

BBC OC front page features women in the majority of images on Wednesday
Outside Source's Wednesday webpage exceeds the 50:50 goal of including women. 

 

It's about the journalism
Kathleen Culver, assistant professor and director for journalism ethics at the University of Wisconsin told Poynter that what the BBC is achieving has implications for improving journalism.

"Journalism is all about the people we are trying to serve," she said. "Our reporting ought to be representative of those people. When our stories feature more men than we see in our communities, that representation is out of whack. Bringing representations more in line helps all of us see our communities for what they are. The journalism is better because more voices are heard."

Atkins agrees.

"If you come to work every day and your reason to work is to report and analyze the world fairly, if you are looking through the male gaze, you are only going to see one version of the world." 

Culver said news organizations concoct all sorts of excuses for allowing their programs to be male-dominated.

"One of them certainly is bias, the idea that men are more authoritative, better-spoken, 'real' experts," Culver said. "We have to work to battle that. But there’s more nuance. I’m doing some work right now on why nurses — a female-dominated field — are so dramatically underrepresented in health care journalism. One study put nurses at just 2 percent of sources in these stories. Yet when you ask anyone who they trust and spend time with when getting care, it’s nurses." 

The Global Media Monitoring Project has been keeping score for years. For 20 years, from 1995 to 2015, it found little change in how women are portrayed in media worldwide. GMMP reports: "Only 24 percent of news subjects — the people who are interviewed, or whom the news is about — are female. Women’s points of view are rarely heard in the topics that dominate the news agenda; even in stories that affect women profoundly, such as gender-based violence, it is the male voice that prevails."

GMMP also reports:

  • When women do make the news, it is primarily as "stars" or "ordinary people," not as figures of authority.
  • As newsmakers, women are under-represented in professional categories. As authorities and experts, women barely feature in news stories.
  • While the study has found a few excellent examples of exemplary gender-balanced and gender-sensitive journalism, it demonstrates an overall glaring deficit in the news media globally, with half of the world’s population barely present.

Culver said one of the keys to expanding women's presence in media is to convince women that it is worth the effort to be seen and heard.

"We need journalists to respect the expertise of women as much as men. But we also need women to see that working with journalists and sharing their expertise is important," Culver said.

Atkins said the reason to keep count at all is not to create some moral position or put on a caring public face.

"When I started it, I was obsessed with what we were giving the audience," he said. What mattered most is not how hard the BBC tried to find gender equity in what it aired, what mattered most is what actually aired. 

What if we counted other things?

Culver added, "As humans, we fall victim to a lot of flawed thinking. If we’ve used a female source in our last story, for instance, we can fall victim to recency bias, falsely believing that our latest source is representative of coverage overall. So we should count a lot more. Things like race, education level, urban-suburban-rural. Our communities are diverse, and we should be active observers of how our staff, our sources, our narratives can be diverse, as well."

Atkins said other news organizations in Europe and the United States are joining as 50/50 partners. In the spring 2019, the BBC will release year-to-year comparisons of how programs have increased female representation. The BBC also has commissioned a deep study to understand whether listeners and viewers care about the issue and whether they have noticed what Atkins and his colleagues started. 

"I feel a huge sense of pride when I come to work every day at the BBC," he said. "But for the BBC to justify itself to the people of the UK who fund it, the programs we produce needs to sound right and look right."

He said that's not possible unless the programs include women as prominently as men.

"I felt I want do something about it and I happen to be an anchor … I just don’t think there is any excuse that is good enough for us not to do this correctly."

Additional reading:

A number of researchers and journalists have written thoughtfully about gender bias in media coverage.

Some examples:

"I Analyzed a Year of My Reporting for Gender Bias (Again)," Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic 

Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), a grassroots monitoring, research and advocacy project, has several reports about the global disparity of women quoted in news stories.  

McGill University and Stony Brook University researchers examine why women receive less coverage than men and whether the gender of news professionals has a significant impact on how men and women are treated in news reports. That study collected data on 13 major newspapers in the United States between 1983 and 2008, and in about 2,000 English-language newspapers and online news websites between 2004 and 2009. It found:

  • 40 percent of all coverage went to 1 percent of the names. People who received thousands of mentions were almost only male.
  • Male names received at least four times as much exposure as female names in the 13 major U.S. newspapers that were analyzed.

 

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