In Conversation With Lara Joannides, BBC’s 50:50 Project Lead

When I sat down to join a Forward Ladies webinar in conversation with Griselda at the start of the year, it was my first online event of that kind. Little did we know it would soon be how events across the world, from press conferences and morning meetings to pub quizzes and birthday parties, would be held.

I’d been invited to speak about the work I do to improve female representation in BBC content with the 50:50 Project, how the project came about and why we need women with expertise in all sorts of backgrounds to get involved.

As we now adjust to a different world, with many of us learning to work from home and social distancing becoming the new norm, my team and I have never been more committed to making sure that our content truly reflects that world – and all the people in it.

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From talking to doing

Many broadcasters, publications and organisations talk a lot about improving their gender balance – whether it be in their content or in their boardrooms – but visible change has been slow.

The 50:50 Project was started by a single team in the BBC’s newsroom who wanted to find a practical way to move from talking about it, to actually doing it. And that’s one of the reasons why 50:50 works so well. It was developed by journalists who understand the challenges of producing daily content and who proved it is entirely possible to represent men and women equally. It’s also run, driven and championed by producers – a voluntary, grassroots initiative that has grown to include over 600 teams across the corporation.

I spent the first ten years of my career working as a journalist on a range of BBC output, from local radio to CBBC’s Newsround to the BBC World Service, and I’ve often felt frustrated at a lack of diverse voices in the news in general. When I came across the 50:50 Project, I saw first-hand how it was changing the mind-set of content-makers.

With tight deadlines and the added pressure of competition from online and social media outlets, journalists often feel they don’t have time to seek out new voices and are limited by the spokespeople and industry leaders available. Being encouraged – and given more time and resources – to seek out new contributors through 50:50, teams have proven that there are brilliant women in every field. We just don’t hear from them nearly as often.

Producers have also seen how redressing the gender balance of their contributors has strengthened their content and increased its impact. In a recent YouGov survey, a third of women aged 25 to 34 said they now consume more BBC content as a result of this shift.

Finding new voices

A big part of what we do at 50:50 is to help our teams find diverse voices. We don’t want editors and producers to see the need for balance as a need to include more “women’s stories”, but as a chance to uncover expert women in typically male-dominated areas too.

There are highly-experienced and talented economists, scientists, businesswomen, engineers and political experts out there, for example, who may not have had the opportunity to appear in the media but who we should be talking to. This can be for a number of reasons, such as a lack of training or championing by their employer; a lack of awareness or confidence in what to do for broadcast interviews; or limited time, as women tend to shoulder the majority of caring and domestic responsibilities.

One of the best parts of my job is attending 50:50 open days and networking events, where we give professionals from a wide range of industries and backgrounds a taste of what it’s like to be on air with a tour of our studios, and mock TV and radio interviews. We also introduce them to producers looking to widen their network of potential contributors, and it’s always fantastic to see attendees being booked for interviews after the events.

We encourage programme-makers to think of different ways of conducting interviews to make it easier for women to say yes. For example, asking teams to consider Skype or Zoom instead of asking a guest to come into the studio, to allow them to make the school run and still appear in their programme. Hopefully, more flexible and remote production practices will be one positive change to come out of the coronavirus pandemic.

Spreading change

While the 50:50 Project started as an internal BBC initiative with a focus on our content-makers driving change, we realise that we can achieve far more by working with others in the media industry and beyond to make gender-balanced content the new normal. We’ve now developed a network of more than 60 partners in 20 countries who are all applying the 50:50 method and principles to their work.

Media organisations such as the FT and ABC Australia are monitoring their output and widening the pool of women contributors in their industries and regions. We’re also working with corporations and public relations companies such as Unilever, PwC and Lansons, to help them ensure the content they create and the spokespeople they put forward to the media are gender-balanced.

Each of us consumes hours of content every day, whether it be TV ads, the news or social media campaigns, and what that content looks and sounds like can have a huge impact on our understanding of the world. The more inclusive it is, the more accurately it will reflect society and appeal to a wider audience and customer-base.

Working on the 50:50 Project has definitely been one of the highlights of my career so far. I’ve met many inspiring women – and men! – who are doing fantastic things to promote diversity and inclusivity. We’re a United Nations Global Goals partner for Gender Equality, and Harvard Kennedy and London Business Schools have published a case study on the success of 50:50 as a diversity initiative. So while it’s been a demanding role, with many long hours and late nights, the rewards of being involved in something so positive have been well worth it.

If you’d like to find out more about partnering with the 50:50 Project, or about joining our database of expert women, please visit our website at