What Companies Who Want More Diversity Can Learn From the BBC

Ros Atkins felt stuck. The career BBC journalist felt that he and many of his colleagues had “accepted that representing women equally in our journalism was a desirable goal, but also accepted that it wasn’t possible,” he said.

Many leaders and organizations struggle with the same challenge: a gap between their virtuous intentions to address gender inequality and knowing what to do in practice to deliver more diversity and inclusion. While most leaders say they want more gender equality, few know how to bring it about. So how, exactly, can we bridge this intention–action gap and make meaningful change on an issue as complex as gender equality?

The story of how Atkins got unstuck is a promising model for action and one that we recently wrote about in a case study. He founded the 50:50 Project at the BBC, an organizational change initiative intended to ensure equal gender representation across content—including guests and contributors on BBC shows and in journalism across TV, radio, and digital channels. What started with just one news show in January 2017 has now grown into a movement consisting of 600 BBC teams, 6,000 BBC content creators, and more than 60 partner organizations (such as the Financial Times and Fortune) around the world. As a result, it has dramatically changed gender representation in the media worldwide.

It also permanently changed how journalists approach their work. Crucially, starting the project was not only about social justice; it was about producing better journalism. “A plurality of perspectives gives us journalists the best chance to succeed in our aims of reporting, explaining, and analyzing the world around us effectively,” Atkins said. “We needed a change of mindset so that we thought of equal representation as non-negotiable, in the same way that we think of political balance, high production values, or hitting deadlines.” Audiences, especially those on the younger side, place a higher value on content that reflects their world.

“We needed a change of mindset so that we thought of equal representation as non-negotiable, in the same way that we think of political balance, high production values, or hitting deadlines.”

The 50:50 Project has managed to achieve what most organizational diversity and inclusion efforts do not: meaningful and sustained behavior change in service of greater gender equality. How did they do it? By implementing a salient, simple, and grassroots-driven intervention based on insights from behavioral science and behavioral design.

Atkins had been noticing a dearth of women in the news for years but was spurred to action after listening to an hour-long radio show without a single woman contributor in 2016. Suspecting that journalists simply weren’t aware of such gender disparities, and inspired by how he saw Silicon Valley using data to propel operational and cultural change on a recent trip, Atkins and his team began an experiment. They started to count the number of women and men appearing as guests, contributors, and expert commentators on his nightly prime time television news program, Outside Source. At the end of each show, the producer would tally the number of women and men that had appeared on the program, and would record the data in a simple tracking spreadsheet. Their first results for the month of January 2017 confirmed Atkins’s suspicions: only 39 percent of the contributors appearing on Outside Source were women.

The Outside Source team sprang into action. Their goal was to achieve 50:50 representation of women and men serving as contributors each month. The team wasn’t always successful, but the data they were gathering became a way for them to identify and dismantle key obstacles. For instance, certain content areas had a larger gender skew in contributors, prompting Atkins to compile a list of female experts on those topics to facilitate the process of booking them for the show. Three months after they first started tracking their gender representation data, Atkins and his team reached 51 percent women across a month for the first time.

Atkins started to spread the word to other content teams throughout the BBC, focusing on those who already saw the need for greater gender equality, rather than on converting skeptics. We can understand his success through the lens of the behavioral science–based EAST framework—developed in 2012 by the United Kingdom’s Behavioural Insights Team—which suggests that for behavior change to stick, it should be made easy, attractive, social, and timely. “I had seen diversity initiatives flounder because they were too complicated or too negative an experience for people to take on,” Atkins told us.

“I had seen diversity initiatives flounder because they were too complicated or too negative an experience for people to take on.”

Making behavior change easy entails removing or minimizing the barriers to adopting the new, desired behavior. The 50:50 Project creators made behavior change easy by sharing all practical resources, such as counting templates, openly; by offering one-on-one coaching to struggling teams; and by instructing teams to count the number of contributors rather than speaking time, for example.

Making behavior change attractive entails motivating through goals, targets, competition, and social desirability. The very name of the 50:50 Project presents a salient goal that focuses attention. From the outset, Atkins and his team made joining the 50:50 Project voluntary while framing 50:50’s benefits in terms of journalists’ core motivations to increase content quality.

Making behavior change social entails harnessing social norms and leveraging the power of networks. At the beginning, the 50:50 Project spread through one-on-one conversations and small group meetings. To scale it, Atkins strategically targeted influential BBC teams and programs that he knew would encourage others through role modeling. They were able to tap into the common human desire to be part of something bigger than themselves—a collective movement for gender equality in media representation.

Making behavior change timely means communicating with people when they are paying attention and creating a sense of urgency to motivate action. In this case, daily tallying of data during post-show debriefs reached journalists when they were already evaluating the quality of their productions, and monthly comparative reporting of all teams’ data kept motivation high through friendly competition. In April 2018, the BBC’s director-general ramped up the stakes by issuing a company-wide participation challenge. March has since been instituted as an annual 50:50 Challenge month for which all participating BBC teams’ 50:50 results are reported publicly. The 50:50 Project’s early days coincided with the global #MeToo movement and a highly publicized gender pay equity scandal at the BBC, making the work even more timely.

“50:50 is not about keeping excellent men out of our programs—it’s about finding many more excellent women contributors.”

Inducing short-term behavior change is one thing; getting it to stick is another. But the latest data are promising. The results of the second 50:50 Challenge month indicate a notable and sustainable shift in the representation of women: in March 2020, two-thirds of BBC teams reached 50 percent women contributors (up from one-third of teams at the start of monitoring). Audiences, too, are paying attention: nearly 40 percent of respondents in a nationally representative survey in the United Kingdom noticed more women in BBC online content, and 40 percent of 16-to-34-year-old respondents said they were more likely to enjoy content with a better gender balance.

To be sure, there was some resistance to the 50:50 Project when it began. Some on the outside questioned whether the BBC had gone too far with its gender equality efforts, while others on the inside viewed 50:50 as “political correctness gone mad” or an initiative to make men “an endangered species,” according to the interviews we conducted with BBC colleagues for our case study. But with strong executive support and data to disprove people’s incorrect assumptions, the project leaders were able to prove naysayers wrong. “50:50 is not about keeping excellent men out of our programs—it’s about finding many more excellent women contributors,” Atkins says.

That expansive, non-zero-sum frame is powerful—and perhaps another reason why the project has been successful. It teaches us that small changes to everyday work practices in one organization can yield industry-wide, long-term culture shifts that benefit everyone. Now that’s a story worth reporting.