In June 2019, the Voice of America Russian-language TV program, “New York, New York,” featured exactly 51 men and 51 women. They know because they counted.
A few weeks earlier, VOA had joined with the BBC to achieve gender balance in news programming. Started by the BBC in 2017, the 50:50 Project aims to improve the representation of women in news content. VOA is one of more than 100 organizations in 26 countries to sign on as a global partner. VOA and the other participating news organizations count the appearances of women and men in their programs to keep track and to keep attention focused on equal representation.
While the Russian team’s count revealed equitable gender balance from the beginning, not all VOA programs could claim equal representation of women and men. One team reported one month when 93% of those who were featured or quoted were male. Another team counted 72% men.
“Unconscious bias is a real thing,” says Acting VOA Director Yolanda López, “but it can be addressed. We find that the act of simply counting appearances encourages our journalists to pay closer attention to the gender of their news sources. And once they’re paying attention, change happens naturally.”
Since then, VOA has indeed seen change. The percentage of 50:50 Project teams, broadcasting in multiple languages that previously exhibited a male bias, is on a steady trend toward equity.
“We’re coming up on two years and, frankly, it’s been an impressive effort,” says Gary Butterworth, the VOA 50:50 project coordinator. “But it shows there’s still work that needs to be done.”
To generate enthusiasm for the 50:50 Project, participants around the world seized on March-–Women’s History Month—to recommit themselves to the Project. Eighteen VOA teams submitted 50:50 Project data for the month, the most ever at VOA. Their data revealed that 50.2% of discretionary appearances were women, making March 2021 the most-balanced month since VOA started tracking in 2019.
Says Butterworth: “By a couple of measures, this was our very best month for the two years that we have been in this project. And by every measure, we were far above average.”
VOA’s successful March was echoed by 50:50 Project teams at other media organizations, according to The 50:50 Impact Report 2021 published on April 22. The report notes that half of 50:50 Project teams worldwide achieved 50% women contributors in the content for the month – up from 31% when the organizations first joined. More than three out of four of the 50:50 partners hit 40%.
BBC Director-General Tim Davie says, “The 50:50 Project continues to enrich BBC’s content with new voices, helping us to reflect the audiences we serve. With our external partners, we are now also seeing a real impact beyond the BBC on a global scale. I encourage any organizations interested in taking up the challenge to get involved.”
The project is not VOA’s first foray into gender equality. In recent years, VOA has added programs on radio and TV by and about women. On four continents, 13 language teams now feature women-focused programs.
In addition, the VOA Women’s Caucus is now in its third year, with the goal of bringing both women and men inside VOA together to advance reporting on women, to connect journalists with lesser-known female sources and to mentor young women colleagues.
Navbahor Imamova, a VOA Uzbek language service journalist, is president of the caucus.
“We would like to think that our engagement across the organization is helping our colleagues boost their professional esteem and confidence,” Imamova says.
Butterworth and Imamova see the Women’s Caucus and 50:50 as complimentary: the caucus encourages both female and male journalists behind the scenes, and 50:50 measures the work.
“In 47 languages, we serve as a model of professional journalism. So by focusing on gender balance in our news content, we’re actually also inspiring and promoting this kind of journalism across the globe,” Imamova adds, “making a difference in many countries and cultures.”
“It’s about quality,” says López, “and about accurately representing the many voices that help us more fully tell America’s story to our global audience.”