By Kesewa Hennessy, Digital Editor for Audience Engagement, Financial Times

Why the Financial Times began women engagement projects

The Financial Times’ (FT’s) gender projects started with data. This has proved crucial in helping us understand our women audience and work towards meeting their needs.

In 2016, for the first time, we were able to define the size of our women audience using the inferred gender model. The data confirmed that this audience was relatively small and disengaged. We saw this as both a concern and a business opportunity. Follow-up research helped us understand why this audience was not engaging with the FT (for example, women readers told us they found the FT a masculine product) and how we could try to change this. The inferred gender model also allowed us to see which stories women were reading, further increasing our understanding of this audience.

We refocused the remit of the role of Digital Editor for Audience Engagement to include setting up and running a series of gender projects which have two broad aims:

  1. Externally: To change women subscribers’ perceptions of the FT, increase their engagement in the long run and build loyalty in the audience.
  2. Internally:
    • To better understand what our women audience consumes.
    • To encourage culture change among colleagues to better meet the demands of that audience.

These projects are aimed at engaging existing women subscribers rather than reaching a bigger women audience for the FT. But we also hope that a possible corollary of some of these projects will be to change the perceptions of women who don’t yet read the FT.

To encourage culture change among colleagues to better meet the demands of that audience.

One of our key metrics for determining women’s engagement with a story, topic or section is the proportion of women readers and how this compares with the overall benchmark. We are always aiming to increase that proportion and raise the overall benchmark.

  • Active women subscribers

1.2 percentage point increase between Q1 2017 and Q3 2019.

  • Average percentage of women readers for an FT story

3 percentage point increase between 2017 and 2019 year on year.



The project: We decided to promote stories that women want to read in prominent slots; that is, stories that we think are likely to exceed the average percentage of women readers for an FT story (‘overindex’) based on past engagement with that topic.


The home page editors and Digital Editor for Audience Engagement together select one piece a day likely to do well with women. The story is promoted at the top of the home page, in a popular daily news digest email with a high proportion of women readers, and on social media. We then track how our Project XX choices perform with women.


  1. Externally: To change women perceptions of the FT by trying to ensure women are more likely to spot the kinds of stories they want to read.
  2. Internally:
    • To learn more about women subscribers by tracking the performance of Project XX stories and to share the information with relevant teams.
    • To encourage culture change among relevant teams. For example, home page editors to promote a wider range of stories and to consider ‘success’ in terms of metrics other than page views; commissioning editors to commission a wider range of stories.


The average proportion of women readers for a Project XX story is several percentage points higher than for an average FT story. The goal is to continue to increase that difference.


Primarily, bringing about culture change on the home page, one of the most valuable parts of the FT. Here are a few examples:

  • Encouraging home page editors to accept a new practice, especially one with the potential to be seen as interfering with news judgment and independence.
  • Encouraging a focus on metrics other than total page views (e.g. % of women page views).
  • Promoting stories not seen as ‘core’ FT (often described as ‘niche’, ‘soft’, ‘fluffy’).
  • Broadening ideas about who ‘the FT reader’ is and what they want to see on the home page, using both data and a wider range of journalistic perspectives.
  • Challenging preconceptions about what women FT subscribers read –and equally about what men subscribers read (however high the percentage of women readers, FT stories above our benchmark number of total page views are read by more men than women).
  • Gaining an understanding of the practices and decision-making processes of the team that runs the home page. These are not always clear to those outside the team.
  • Establishing workflows, as well as rapport and trust between the home page and AE teams.
  • Embedding a controversial practice with status somewhere between compulsory and voluntary, ultimately relying on colleagues’ goodwill.


  • Cultural change can be slow but it happens. The kind of stories home page editors consider home page material has shifted as they’ve seen Project XX stories perform extremely well in terms of page views.
  • Project XX has helped expand the range of stories that perform well for the FT. In particular, it has helped show home page editors that work-related topics previously seen as ‘niche’ will often gather high total page views as well as over-indexing with women. Greater interest in promoting new kinds of over-indexing stories in turn encourages commissioning editors to produce more. These topics include fertility, menstruation, menopause, parenting, sexual harassment, racial discrimination and LGBTQ+ issues.
  • Incentives help win editorial support. Examples include the opportunity for additional promotion, as well as information on which stories could attract more readers for them and insights into what home page editors want.
  • Share personalised data with colleagues. To engage colleagues (and to help the new project take root in the early days), we let people know how their stories fared with women readers. Good news is always welcome.
  • Face-to-face communication is important with new/ controversial projects. Understanding colleagues’ team culture, and hearing their ideas (and concerns), is an essential part of the project design process.
  • Start with a small trial. You can extend it, adjust it or drop it if it doesn’t work. You’ll always learn something.
  • Leadership matters. Signalling and support from senior editorial colleagues, explaining what’s happening and why it matters, is important. Some acknowledgment of colleagues’ extra efforts helps too.
  • Data shows us that our preconceptions about women (and men) are often wrong. While stories on ‘women’s’ topics (fashion, style, beauty) over-index with women, the same stories are always read by a higher percentage of men. This is also true of articles on topics from managing your career to femtech. This reflects the makeup of our subscriber base, which is about 75% men. Some of the FT’s more specialist financial content over-indexes with women (financial regulation, fund management).


The project: We wanted to target women subscribers with FT content that we know women read in a format they told us they liked.


We send out a newsletter every Friday, combining the biggest stories and best reads in one smart email. It’s handpicked by a different women FT journalist each week.


To meet the needs of women who told us they tended to be time-poor, wishing they could engage more with the news. We approached this in several ways:

  1. Format: Tailored to be a catch-up newsletter for busy women. It offers them an opportunity to read the stories we think they shouldn’t miss, over the weekend.
  2. Content: The curators’ choice of stories is informed by data on what women have been reading during the past week. Because women readers told us they saw the FT as ‘just about finance’, we include both news and features on a range of topics – the best reads as well as the biggest stories. They are all FT stories we think are relevant to women, which might otherwise have been missed.
  3. Curators: To make the newsletter feel more relevant to an audience of women, a different women journalist curates every week. This highlights our women journalists and offers women perspectives on the news.
  4. Tone: Deliberately distinct from that of the core FT it is informed but also informal, engaging and conversational; designed to be an enjoyable read. Each curator brings her personality, expertise and interests to the week’s edition, offering a ‘behind the curtain’ look at FT stories and the reasons they have caught her eye.
  5. Visually: To set it apart from core FT, we chose a specially commissioned, hand-drawn logo and a different colour palette. The images feature a more diverse range of people.


It has a highly engaged audience that is more women than the FT average.

  • 8.2 percentage points more women readers than the average FT newsletter.
  • Average open rate is 3.5 percentage points higher.
  • Average clickthrough rate is 1.8 percentage points higher.
  • Month-on-month growth in subscriber base since launch in early 2018.

*Data from Q3 2019


  • Designing a newsletter format for an audience with which we were relatively unfamiliar.
  • Finding a new design and tone of writing appropriate for the audience, while retaining an FT feel.
  • Working with a wide range of authors and still maintaining a consistent feel.
  • We wanted to ensure this newsletter had a diverse line-up of authors.
  • Establishing a new editing platform to enable a more flexible design.


  • Explicit ‘women’s’ branding is not essential. This product engages women, even though it’s not branded anywhere as a women’s product. We don’t know what effect ‘women’s’ branding would have, positive or negative.
  • Men read ‘women’s products’ too. This newsletter is designed to engage women but also engages men subscribers.
  • Direct feedback is limited. The audience for this newsletter doesn’t interact directly with the authors so our feedback at present is largely restricted to engagement metrics. We’re not sure why, though it could be because it’s hard for readers to build a sense of a personal relationship with such a large number of rotating authors.


The project: We wanted to find a way to get a better gender balance of pictures on the FT home page.


JanetBot is a machine learning tool that uses facial analysis software to identify the gender of people in photographs in FT stories. The bot shares gender classifications with editors via coloured on-screen flags. It also shares gender balance data through a Slack channel.


  1. Externally: To increase women engagement. Our analysis shows women are more likely than men to click on stories illustrated with pictures of women.
  2. Internally: To raise awareness of gender imbalance in home page pictures and to prompt FT journalists to take action to increase the number of pictures featuring women.


  • The underlying facial recognition software/database appears to have particular trouble classifying non-white faces, reflecting biases reportedly common in AI.
  • The bot requires frequent correction’ of classification from users, which is beyond newsroom resources.
  • Convincing colleagues to look at the automated data and integrating this task into their workflow.


  • To design a product that secures newsroom engagement, editorial users need to be involved at the inception.It can be hard to iron out features that users find unhelpful once a product has been developed and launched. In this case, limited resources mean it has not been possible to do so.
  • JanetBot has therefore proved more useful in raising awareness of the gender imbalance (via the on-screen flags) than as a data-collection tool. We hope to use JanetBot’s awareness-raising capabilities in future projects, switching the focus from published output to reminding journalists to consider the gender balance of pictures early in the life of a story.
  • It’s hard to get newsroom users to change their behaviour using automated processes. We are now aiming to move towards a more manual approach.


The project: We wanted to help FT teams include a better balance of men and women contributors in their output.

What’s the goal? To build on FT analysis showing that articles produced by teams that quote a high proportion of women are well read by women. In addition, teams that quote a high proportion of women also feature more women in their pictures.

How does it work? We began with automated sharing of data with colleagues, intended to raise awareness of the gender imbalance. This year we’ve shifted our focus to a more manual approach:

  • She Said He Said (launched 2018):A bot that tells us the gender balance of sources quoted in published FT articles. It uses pronouns (‘she said… he said…’) and first names to determine whether a source is a man or a woman.
  • 50:50 Project (launched 2019): A simple, voluntary system of self-monitoring, where teams track the gender balance of their contributors in published stories. Launched in partnership with the BBC as a follow-up to She Said He Said.


  • She Said He Said: Getting colleagues to look at automated data in the first instance, and to act based on this data.
  • 50:50 Project:
    • Identifying a colleague in a journalistic role to take the lead, which is helpful in encouraging other journalists to take part.
    • Finding ways to keep momentum going among participants, especially when their percentage of women contributors starts from a low base, improves only slowly, remains static or gets worse.
    • Personal communication with thosetakingpart is proving vital, to identify and correct any misapprehensions about the goals of the project and to discuss ideas. Six commissioning desks have so far opted into the project. However, these desks deal with many of the FT’s hundreds of reporters and editors. Finding an effective way to communicate with such large numbers is a challenge.


  • The manual approach is more engaging. At this early stage in the 50:50 Project, it seems to raise awareness of imbalances and engage colleagues more effectively than automation. It also appears to be a better way to get discussion going, in turn raising awareness across the newsroom.
  • Work with people who want to be involved. 50:50 seems to ‘give permission’, a focus and structure to those already keen to bring about change.
  • Personal contact with colleagues matters. The voluntary and team-led approach allows colleagues to take ownership, which appears to increase commitment. Where the project has at first been interpreted as a top-down edict, enthusiasm has sometimes been limited. By contrast, when teams have been invited to discuss their difficulties and share ideas appropriate to their own work, enthusiasm and engagement has increased.
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