'The BBC is a member of Opportunity 2000 and is committed to equal opportunities.
As a result, when we came to examine ourselves, it came as something of a shock to find less than 10% of senior staff were female.' Laurence Benson, equality manager at the World Service, is frank as he explains the reasons behind the award-winning scheme he pioneered with training specialist, the Karsh Consultancy. 'We were clearly recruiting women on equal terms with men at the lower levels, but this just wasn't reflected further up.'
Closer examination revealed that a large part of the problem was due to too few women applying for senior posts. Tackling the problem was far from simple, not least because positive action can easily be seen as preferential treatment. This was one good reason for bringing in outside expertise to give a fresh angle. 'Staff can say things to an external consultant that they could never say internally,' explains Harriet Karsh.
Accordingly, Karsh and Benson drew up a programme designed to influence not merely the trainees themselves but the rest of the World Service. 'We needed a big bang approach - to challenge the organisation and to involve it in the answer,' explains Benson. Potential high-flyers were invited to apply for the course after talking to their line managers. This ensured that bosses were made aware of their employees' aspirations and this in its own right had a positive impact.
Altogether some 300 female employees enquired about the scheme and 90 applied to join, of whom 23 were chosen. 'We were looking for a core group of women who demonstrated a real talent for leadership and the ability to think strategically about their careers,' says Karsh. The successful applicants came from all levels and divisions of the Service and ranged in age from 25 to 50.
The two-year programme had three main training components. The first - mentoring - attached individual applicants to a manager other than their own boss to provide help and support. The second strand also involved other members of staff - this time their own line manager. 'The women had to do two projects and these had to be of direct benefit to their work,' says Karsh, explaining that it was important to compensate hard-pressed managers for releasing their precious staff to the scheme.
The final element consisted of regular seminars and training groups to discuss progress and teach new skills.
Because there was clearly no shortage of talent among junior women in the organisation, the main stress was on building up trainees' self-confidence and giving them the skills to sell themselves. Here Karsh says success is already apparent. 'One woman did a project which looked at ways of attracting more female listeners,' she says. 'She developed the idea for a new series aimed at women and this has now been given the go-ahead. It shows that the scheme is opening up eyes and ears to new ideas throughout the World Service.'
Another producer gained the confidence to lobby support from the organisation's six regional heads for a programme idea. 'That had never been done and before taking part in the scheme, she would never have had the courage to bang on their doors.' In the event the tactic worked: five out of six were very impressed and her idea has taken off.
'The scheme has been very successful across the whole organisation,' confirms Benson, pointing out that the number of women in senior posts rose sharply from 8% in 1992 to 25% in 1996. 'But it has done much more than this,' he continues. 'It has delivered the culture change that we set out to achieve and now women are a natural part of our decision-making processes.'.