Interview with Nina Goswami from the BBC

Nina brings her journalistic talents and passion for storytelling to her role as a diversity professional, enriching BBC content by championing a wider range of voices.

Before I met with Nina Goswami, the BBC’s Creative Diversity Lead and Head of the 50:50 Equality Project, I must admit to feeling some trepidation. Interviewing a journalist, I was worried that Nina would find my questions trite or feel that – compared with her contemporaries at the BBC – I was lacking insight or expertise. However, as soon as I joined the call, Nina was warm, friendly and incredibly generous with her time; from my perspective at least, the conversation was an absolute pleasure.

We started by talking about how Nina’s career has led to her current position. Nina remembers vividly the moment when, during a lull in conversation, her father pointed to Moira Stuart on the six o’clock news and said, ‘Nina, I can see you doing that one day.’ This lit a spark in eight-year-old Nina who recalls, ‘the idea of telling stories is what I liked.’

Having followed the well-trodden path through editing various school and university magazines and undertaking work experience placements, Nina opted to study law at university. She explained her rationale, saying that ‘Journalism is about storytelling and uncovering the truth about things and that’s what law is as well. It’s about being able to argue a point, to analyse, to evidence what you’re doing and to put your argument forward.’ After a few years writing for various publications and receiving a Murdoch Scholarship, it was Nina’s mother who spotted the advert for the Broadcast Journalist Trainee Scheme at the BBC. Nina’s application was successful and, following stints working for BBC North West Tonight, Radio Manchester, Radio Merseyside and Inside Out North West, she returned to London – first to the BBC News Channel before heading to the BBC News at Six and Ten.

Nina spoke about how her passion for storytelling contributes to her work in diversity. She highlighted that ‘Part of journalism is having a diversity of voice in what we see, hear and read. For me, four or five years ago, I didn’t feel that we, the media, were necessarily doing that.’ Thinking about instances where the media were not quite telling stories in the right way inspired Nina to co-lead a BBC project called Future-Proofing BBC News. 

Around the same time, in 2016, Ros Atkins, a TV news presenter, had been listening to BBC radio and was disconcerted to notice that he hadn’t heard a female voice for a long time. Nina told me, ‘He went off to try and find a solution and that’s where 50:50 came from.’

50:50 The Equality Project started as an initiative to increase women’s representation in BBC content; as Nina says, it has ‘proved that, using data, we can really make a difference in terms of increasing women’s representation.’

The core principles

The initiative is based around three core principles which Nina described to me as: ‘… data to effect change, which means using almost real-time data to quantify what we’re doing, identify the gaps and then make a change. I call it count, share, change. For example, if we were looking at increasing women’s representation on a daily news programme, the team would count the number of men and the number of women on their programme to see whether they can reach 50% women’s representation over a month-long period. As a result of looking for new commentators and experts, we’ve expanded our network of contributors which is bringing more diversity of thought; we’re not just finding brilliant new women but also brilliant new male voices as well.

‘The next principle is that we measure what we control. That’s really important because you can’t change what you can’t control. We remove the ‘players’ from our monitoring because they’re intrinsic to our storytelling. For example, the British prime minister wouldn’t be counted in a COVID-19 report because we have to include him. However, the political commentators, the members of the public and case studies we show are counted because we can control that.

‘The final one is that the quality of contributors is paramount. We are not trying to reach 50% women’s representation for a quota’s sake. It’s about giving us an aspirational target so that we push ourselves to find the best voices.’

The simplicity and clarity of these principles mean that they can – and have – been adapted and adopted by a huge range of teams and industries. Within the BBC alone, over 750 teams are now participating in 50:50 The Equality Project and the BBC is working with 145 partner organisations in 30 countries to implement the principles.

Nina told me that, ‘The benefit of the 50:50 model and principles is that you can really take them in any direction you want.’ And it’s making a real difference. Of those who took part in the March 2022 challenge month, 61% of teams reached 50% women’s representation, up from 35% when those teams first joined. Audiences are also seeing the impact and Nina highlighted that, ‘this year, a staggering 80% of 16–24 year olds said that they enjoy content more on the BBC digital platforms and 68% of women aged 16–34 are consuming more content as a result of increased women’s representation.’

Diversity of thought

While the original targets around 50:50 relate to female representation in content, Nina notes that it’s actually about much more than that. She explained, ‘if you’re in an echo chamber, you’re talking to a limited number of people who hold very similar opinions. When you move outside of that sphere, all of a sudden, you’re hearing different opinions, different thoughts and actually, it changes perceptions. When I talk about diversity of thought, I mean new voices giving us a range of opinions that perhaps we haven’t had. So, from a 50:50 perspective, what we’re doing is trying to enrich our storytelling and give our audiences a different angle on our stories.’

That message is equally applicable when thinking about the make up of boards and of workforces. Nina pointed out that, ‘If women don’t have a voice in the room, we’re not being reflected in the decisions that are being made. Thinking about the return to work – primary carers are the ones most likely to be disadvantaged by hybrid working. Currently, the majority of primary carers are women, more of whom are choosing to work from home. So, if you’re in that meeting and you’ve got male voices in the meeting room and female voices “on the wall” dialling in on a video conference, you need to ask, “who is going to be disadvantaged and whose voice is not going to be heard?” A lot of the onus then goes onto the chair and how they are bringing people into the meeting. There’s a real knack to this that is going to be super important as we move forward.’

Hearing a representative range of voices is also a talent retention issue, as Nina described. ‘Say you’ve got a workforce that is half women but, in the meeting where you’re strategising about the future of workforce, you don’t have a woman present. In that scenario, you’re going to miss major parts of what that strategy could look like, which can lead to potential talent loss in the future. Starting with the relevant data about what you look like right now can make a real difference. Data can prompt questions about why you are losing a particular group of people, and these can lead to conversations about how you can know what they need if they’re not in the room. If you don’t have the governance in place to understand what’s going on in your organisation, you can’t create the right strategies to make sure you’re moving forward as a modern business.’

‘Happy fail’

Nina notes that what has worked so well with 50:50 The Equality Project is that it’s a grassroots initiative that was started in the newsroom by the journalists. The benefits of this are twofold; first, because it’s driven by the end-user, the end product is going to cater to their needs, second, ‘… it gave everyone permission to innovate and come up with new ideas. One of the things that I really like about 50:50 is that it gives people permission to try things – I call it “happy fail”. If it goes wrong, it doesn’t matter, you’re learning something from it. This comes back to governance; whenever you’re doing a project, it’s crucial to think about evidencing and checking that you’re taking the right steps at the earliest stage so that further down the line you’re not going to find that you’ve gone wrong.’

With any diversity initiative, you need to be dynamic and adaptable. Nina stated that she’s ‘… a real believer in as much data as you can get. For many organisations, they might do a once-a-year data collection. If you did that more often, what would that look like? How would that change your strategy? … When you’re looking at data and analytics from a workforce perspective, society is continually changing so if you want to reflect it, you’re going to have to keep reiterating and changing what you’re doing. … You need to be looking at your data very regularly if you want it to be right for today and right for the future. I’m a real believer in “a project never dies”, it just needs to keep evolving.’

Practical tips

It’s clear that Nina and the Creative Diversity Unit at the BBC have been successful in embedding real change; I asked Nina to share some tips on how they’ve done it. Nina said it’s important to think about the future, ‘Just because your board is currently reflective of society, what happens in three years’ time or five years’ time when someone moves on? Where is the succession planning and how are you making sure that’s in place? It’s important to look at what initiatives you have in place so that the middle level in your organisation is maintained and people will want to stay and move up; that’s about inclusive culture and listening.’

Nina also favoured setting manageable goals and monitoring progress constantly. She described a structure where ‘You have the big goals at the top – the five-year plan. How do you get there if you’re only looking at the data once a year? It’s not going to happen. But if you look at it every quarter or even more often, you’re more likely to be able to achieve your aims because you spot the problems early. Setting smaller targets and goals to achieve can be really beneficial.’

This approach can also help to win over reluctant stakeholders. Nina highlighted that if you can show people an impact at the end of year one, ‘… you’re more likely to be able to take them on that journey with you.’

Such has been the success of 50:50, Nina was excited to tell me about how it’s now being applied to improving ethnic diversity and the representation of people with disabilities in BBC content. The next challenge they are taking on is the representation of people from different socio-economic backgrounds. Nina acknowledged that this is a difficult metric to measure and recognised that, ‘It’s not going to be perfect, but we’re going to have a go and see what happens. We’ll reiterate and change, if we need to, and see how we can reach our goal.’

For me, one of the key messages I took from speaking with Nina was the permission to try. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I think we all learned to be a bit more adaptive, and a bit more forgiving when we didn’t get it right first time. Change won’t happen until we take action so whatever targets you and your boards are working towards, why not apply some of the 50:50 principles to ensure that the work you’re doing is creating a meaningful impact for the organisation and the audiences that you’re serving. 

Read 50:50 The Equality Project Impact Report 2022 online at www.bbc.com/5050/impact2022

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