Opinion
18 May 2019

Leadership matters, men matter, but culture matters even more

Why the BBC’s 50:50 initiative has been a success.

Alexandra Borchardt
Alexandra Borchardt Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Leadership matters, men matter, but culture matters even more   - NewsMavens
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It could have been a reporter’s feast, that BBC Director General Tony Hall turned up with a black eye when he opened the BBC’s 50:50 project celebration. This is an initiative that has been successful in bringing up “female” content in many of the participating programs above the magical 50-percent-line, and it has been joined by prestigious national and international media organizations.

But exploiting Hall’s injury from a minor weekend accident as a telling image for scars acquired in the battle of the sexes would have completely missed the point. Because the strength of the 50:50 project, as participants tell you, has been the spirit of friendly competition. Everything was voluntary, no quotas, no obligations, no shaming. And the initiator was a man. 

The impressive statistics are all written down in the project report. More than 500 teams signed up. Out of the teams that were running for twelve months or more, three out of four (74 percent) had reached 50 percent of female representation. And the endeavor supplied insights that are not incredibly surprising for those who know a thing or two about leadership and gender equality. But they are so much more convincing when proven and felt in real life. 

First, it’s actually not that hard to get female experts and contributors. It just needs to be given the proper priority. Even in sports progress is possible. And the project challenged other assumptions, for example, that there were no women heavyweights to go on air in the Arab world. Surprise, surprise, there are plenty. This should have been expected, given that girls excel in schools and universities all over the globe once they are given the opportunity. But to see it and hear it is a different matter altogether.

Second, leadership matters. It did matter a lot that Director General Tony Hall got fired up about the project. Because who wants to disappoint their top leadership instead of impressing them? What he loved about it, he said, was that there was a big idea and someone would simply go for it. Not regard representation of society as an aspiration, but as something that can be done and achieved step-by-step in the daily works.

Third, experiments matter. It’s convenient to declare something impossible and get on with life or wait for some regulation to happen. But how does one know it wouldn’t work if one hasn’t even tried? Experiments can be fun, too, particularly if they are small scale and there is little to lose but everything to gain from the momentum they create. The fact that this project was voluntary, created all the conditions for a great experiment. Just the goal was carved in stone, achieve this by April 30, 2019. And once experiments work, they can be shared as best-practice examples across the whole industry. The BBC can be proud of being a pace-setter.  

Fourth, men matter. Nobody would have said this aloud, and in fact, women took the lead in many teams all over the place. But that popular anchor Ros Atkins was the front man of the 50:50 effort killed all the suspicions that this was just another feminist thing by women who are in it for their own careers (yes, many women have encountered hidden accusations of this sort). Finding male allies is a powerful strategy to getting things done.

Fifth, representation matters, and it’s all about cultural change. Many media organizations are aware of the fact these days that they can’t pursue business as usual if they want to (re)gain the trust of their audiences. The media has been representing the few and catered to for few way too long. The current crisis of journalism is not only one of business models, it is also a crisis of representation. Many top leaders in the industry are aware of this. Now it is time to get into the doing.            

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