Why March 8 will be especially important for diversity and inclusion in publishing.
On March 8th, the world will mark International Women’s Day, which foregrounds the issue of gender equality, celebrates women’s achievements and promotes people and organizations that support women globally. This year’s inevitably pandemic-led theme is: Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World.
To me, this theme recognizes that women must retain a decisive role in guiding the world through the pandemic, because otherwise there is a risk of backsliding on the precious gains made on gender equality. This makes it all the more fitting that the International Publishers Association has installed its first all-female leadership team to lead its post-Covid resilience and sustainability efforts.
Despite the monumental challenges presented by the pandemic in 2020, women in publishing were instrumental in an industry that supported the homeschooling of millions of children, supplied engaging content to confined readers around the globe, and provided free access to important research. Yet even as the world celebrates Women’s Day, our engagements with women in publishing everywhere reveal that they continue to face deep-rooted obstacles to diversity and inclusion.
Overcoming these obstacles will not happen naturally or by accident. It will require a strategic, determined and systematic approach. This is why I started PublisHer in March 2019 with a group of influential female publishers and creative industry leaders — to make concrete, measurable progress on diversity and inclusion in publishing. This call to action became a small network that has evolved into a global community of diversity and inclusion pioneers. Today PublisHer is a platform for initiatives to catalyze progress, partnerships and purposeful action.
Listening Before Acting
PublisHer started with a series of events on the sidelines of major book fairs and conferences to bring together industry pioneers, executives, and aspiring publishers. These listening and networking moments enabled us to develop a global perspective and clear understanding of the most pressing diversity and inclusion challenges faced by women.
Like the rest of the world, when COVID-19 threw in-person events out the window we pivoted to virtual interactions, such as our #Unmasked interviews with a range of women about their routes to publishing success. You can watch these on our YouTube Channel.
But through all the exchanges with our growing base, we discovered several striking commonalities shared by developing publishing markets like Kenya, established markets like the United Kingdom, and emerging publishing hubs like the United Arab Emirates. Around the world, at publishing houses big and small, women are worried about career progression and mobility, entrenched biases, gender-based pay inequities, lack of access to mentors and role models, and career/life balance.
Cultivating the Next Generation
Almost all the women who responded to a PublisHer survey in 2020 said that mentorship was important to aid their career progression, yet less than a third had access to mentors for guidance and support.
In response, we set up a virtual PublisHer mentorship program and were privileged to be able to offer access to many highly accomplished publishing executives, including Maria Pallante, Anne Bergman-Tahon, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Thabiso Mahlape, and Tracey Armstrong, who were exceptionally generous with their time and insights. The uptake of this pilot scheme was higher than expected, and in the end our 20 mentors each agreed to take on at least three mentees to ensure no one was disappointed.
Such was the success of the scheme that we plan to repeat it this year and, all being well, continue it in the years to come.
Towards a Systematic Global Response
Through our listening sessions and consultations, one recurring grievance was how hard it can be in publishing firms to win organizational commitment to do something about the deep-rooted diversity and inclusion challenges. In truth, it is likely that this is due not so much to apathy or scepticism about the importance of D&I, but more to a simple lack of knowledge about how to start making the right changes.
For this reason, on March 8th, we will release the PublisHer Gender and Diversity Diagnostic Toolkit, the first publishing-specific diversity and inclusion resource to support people in making the case for action on the one hand, and to enable companies to go about improving their D&I performance on the other.
The Toolkit provides simple, flexible, implementable resources for publishing firms of all sizes to diagnose the problems, develop action plans, and build buy-in for enduring progress. In developing the Toolkit, we were surprised by a near total lack of resources specific to diversity and inclusion in publishing, despite how widespread, longstanding and counterproductive the issues are.
The Toolkit is very much a living document that comes with an open invitation to PublisHer members and female publishers to submit feedback, initiatives, ideas and approaches to enhance and refine future iterations.
While the pandemic’s full impact on publishing is yet to be revealed, there is a worryingly realistic chance that diversity and inclusion will take a back seat to short-term business survival. A major concern is that layoffs and furloughs, which usually hit underrepresented groups hardest, will disproportionately affect women.
One of the big pandemic-born lessons we have learned as an industry is that we are stronger and more successful when we work together. As PublisHer enters its third year, International Women’s Day on March 8th should serve as a milestone to mark how far we’ve come but, more importantly, to recognize that the journey has only just begun.