In 2010, Professor Lis Howell, Director of Broadcasting in City’s Department of Journalism, wrote an article for Broadcast magazine on the lack of women expert interviewees on British television during the 2010 UK general election campaign.

The article annoyed all the right people, yet Lisa Campbell, then editor of Broadcast, loved it so much that she commissioned Professor Howell to write a series of articles about women experts (or lack of) in broadcast news. After recruiting a couple of eager postgraduate students, the idea of counting women experts on the news was born.

Fast forward 12 years to the present day, and it is fair to say the article – and Professor Howell’s City-based Expert Women Project – has kick-started something of a revolution in UK news reporting. With steadfast determination over several years, Professor Howell and her colleagues have truly changed the landscape of UK broadcasting.

From the outset, Professor Howell and her student monitors used the word ‘expert’ in the way it was usually used in newsrooms – “Get me an expert, as soon as you can!” But they also used it to cover authority figures whom journalists were obliged to interview, like the Metropolitan Police Commissioner or the Prime Minister. An expert, in Professor Howell’s vernacular, was anyone interviewed on a news programme because of their authority – including politicians and celebrities. So, she did not include case studies, examples, witnesses, survivors, or ‘vox pop’ interviewees.

Professor Howell says: “We felt there should be an effort to balance every male authority figure with a woman authority figure, even if that woman was less important, simply because there were equal numbers of male and female in the population – in fact, women were in a slight majority. So, when we counted, we just wanted to know how many women experts were used, and how many men experts were used.”

Monitors made subjective judgements about who was considered an expert and were advised to err on the side of assuming someone was an expert, rather than excluding them. This meant the researchers could not be accused of overstating the case about the lack of women experts.

The team soon confirmed that there were far more men interviewed than women – sometimes six times as many.

“Journalists said that this was because men held more authoritative roles in society,” says Professor Howell. “And it was hard to argue with this. But even so, the ratio of men to women experts seemed too great. How much acknowledged female expertise was out there which was not being used by news programmes?”

Working out how much authority women hold in society is not easy, but figures from various professional bodies and from expert witness agencies, suggested in 2013 that expert men only outnumbered expert women in society by about 2.5 to 1.

Of course, this ignored the question of how much unacknowledged expertise lay with women. In October 2011, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, three men and no women were interviewed in an item about breast cancer, which caused an outcry. With the BBC under pressure to put together a response, the only available information about women interviewees was held by the Expert Women campaign which was featured on Radio 4’s Feedback programme.

The campaign eventually suggested a target ratio of 3:1 men to women experts and asked broadcasters to pledge to reach it. Sky News and Channel 4 signed up immediately. This ratio seemed achievable and much fairer, if not perfect. From March 2012 until October 2013, every month a feature appeared in Broadcast magazine comparing the record of different programmes when it came to representing women. The comparisons worked. Broadcasters started to take notice. In January 2013, a whole edition of Radio 4’s The Media Show was devoted to the issue of under-representation of women in news and current affairs, based on City’s research and campaign.

The Broadcast features were based on the numbers of women experts interviewed on selected news programmes. Professor Howell says: “The evidence was overwhelming, and the programme editors could not deny it. Only one tried, but quickly gave up.”

In October 2013, Professor Howell was given a sabbatical by City and set to work with the random data. There was enough material on four programmes to provide a valid sample for research purposes. These programmes were BBC News At Ten; ITV News at Ten; the Today programme on BBC Radio 4; and Sky News (various half hours). This was later written up in an academic article by Professor Howell and Co-Investigator (and City colleague) Professor Jane Singer, published in the peer-reviewed Journalism Practice in 2016.

In January 2013, the BBC Academy ran its first Expert Women Day in direct response to Broadcast magazine and City’s Expert Women campaign. Two thousand women applied for 30 places. They were academics, professionals, and campaigners. Tim Davie, then Acting Director-General of the BBC (he now has the job permanently) says: “The first Expert Women day was such a big success. It is clear there are many women out there with all the knowledge and experience we are looking for, so we have to do all we can to get them on the air.”

From May 2013 to July 2014 there were four Expert Women Days in different parts of the country. Some 214 women went through the training. The BBC rested the initiative in 2015 but resumed it in 2016 after pressure from Women in Film and Television. There were also two Expert Women Conferences (in 2014 and 2016), the second of which had over 100 delegates. Speakers included the editors of six flagship news programmes being monitored, with all six crediting the Expert Women Project with changing attitudes. There were also keynote speeches from high-profile politicians and Fran Unsworth, then Director of the BBC World Service group. Unsworth praised the City project as “incredibly useful.”

In November 2015, Professor Howell gave an inaugural lecture on the subject of expert women, at which she announced new figures which showed a major increase in the use of women experts – up 25 per cent, from 4.4 to 1 in 2013, to 3.2 to 1 in 2015.
In 2016, 2017 and 2018, a further 114 women attended Expert Women Days and City subsequently hosted two more in 2018 and 2019, introducing women who had been on the BBC Academy days to ITN and independent producers.

By 2021, the ratio had come down further to 2.2 to 1. So, is it job done? The target of 3 to 1 originally suggested in 2012 has been exceeded. Professor Howell says: “The number of women experts on flagship news programmes is now much more in line with the level of female expertise in society. But it still lags behind. And it is not a consistent trajectory. The 2018 figures showed that one programme, BBC News at Ten, had actually become worse between 2017 and 2018 – its ratio had changed from 2.7 to 1 to 3.1 to 1.

“In terms of research,” says Professor Howell, “we need to know more about why women fight shy of some topics, why women experts still fear being seen as ‘pushy’ and why journalists still seem to prefer men, especially in times of crisis.”

The Expert Women Project no longer counts the women experts on six flagship programmes each month, but it does count them for two months each year, releasing the figures when they are available.

The Project has also cast its eye beyond the UK. Ghanaian journalist, editor and writer Nana Ama Agyemang Asante heard a presentation by BBC journalist Ros Atkins about the Expert Women Project and was inspired to team up with Professor Suzanne Franks at City to take the project back to Ghana and replicate it there, using funding made available by the UK Global Challenge Research Fund.

The results, published in September 2021, were stark: male experts outnumbered female experts by more than 10 to 1 on Ghana’s leading radio and TV news programmes.

Agyemang Asante says: “The study showed that Ghanaian women’s voices and expertise remain unacknowledged in the media. The media’s gender gap is not only unfair to women, but it also reinforces harmful and dangerous gender stereotypes.”

But while the picture is less depressing at home, there are other issues too. Figures show that there are more than twice the number of male reporters than female reporters on the flagship programmes. Figures also indicate that men get to speak for longer – both in the UK and in Ghana.

As Professor Howell says: “we are not there yet…”.