Moving the conversation about diversity in children’s publishing forward, panelists specializing in employee recruitment and hiring gathered at the headquarters of the Children’s Book Council in Manhattan on April 20 to share their perspectives on diversification of an industry that remains fairly homogeneous.
The speakers were Joy Bertan, director of talent acquisition and diversity initiatives, Simon & Schuster; Lindsey Cotter, senior v-p, human resources, Scholastic; Kenneth Johnson, president, diversity recruitment firm East Coast Executives; and Paige McInerney, v-p of human resources, Penguin Random House. Andrea Davis Pinkney, v-p and executive editor, Scholastic Trade, moderated the discussion.
The results of the 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey, conducted by Lee and Low Books, were a confirmation of what many had suspected already: that the publishing industry is lacking in diversity. Regardless of disheartening numbers, Pinkney opened the day’s discussion with the goal of displaying “positive, forward thinking” in regards to efforts being made to create a more diverse industry.
Pinkney invited the group to reflect on the ways that the industry is addressing the elephant in the room and how hiring and recruitment processes might be changing along with this increasing awareness.
Johnson, who works on behalf of many different industries, commented that he will often have “subtle conversations with hiring managers,” who have come to recognize that diversity in the office isn’t just important in terms of representation and inclusion, but “diversity does impact the bottom line,” he said. In short, Johnson reports that those in charge of hiring new talent know that diversity counts. “How can you claim to have one of the best work forces if you are not including everyone in the conversation?” he said.
Seeking out and hiring diverse candidates is critical at all levels, but filling roles of “power and authority” with those from diverse backgrounds is particularly important, Cotter said. Because children’s publishing is in the unique position of “having the power and opportunity to influence children all over the world,” if the employee base doesn’t represent the diversity of the people it serves, “we’re missing the mark,” she said.
Bertan commented on how people often tend to “stumble into publishing,” rather than travelling a linear path into the profession. In fact, many individuals thinking about career choices don’t realize that entering the publishing industry is a viable option. Thus, she sees more robust outreach and recruitment on universities as a way of attracting diverse candidates. Agreeing with Bertan’s assessment, Pinkney joked that when she was first dreaming of careers, she certainly didn’t get up every morning thinking: “I’m going to go into subsidiary rights!”
Asking the panelists to weigh in on the topic, Pinkney suggested that one possible impediment for diverse candidates considering careers in children’s publishing might be the relatively low starting salary.
For Bertan, “it’s not for you to say what’s an acceptable salary for someone and it’s unfair to say that only white people can afford it.” She added, “Everyone has to start somewhere.”
Publishing is not the sort of industry you enter with wealth as a primary motivator, suggested Mclnerney. “It doesn’t pay the same as banking.”
Though working in the publishing industry might not be a big money-maker, the panelists agreed that, as with any industry, there is room for employee advancement throughout their careers. Some publishers are also creating additional incentives for new hires. For example, under a recent initiative at Simon & Schuster, Cotter said, candidates who specialize in technology are being recruited with the promise of a higher starting salary.
Assuming that talented, diverse employees are recruited into publishing industry jobs, fostering a welcoming environment for individuals of different backgrounds is the next step. As talking about race is a topic that has the potential to “make people squirm in their chairs,” Pinkney questioned how to best open up the lines of communication.
One of the keys to ensuring that employees of diverse backgrounds feel welcomed is, Bertan said, simply by “sticking with them.” She routinely checks in with new hires, assuring them from the beginning that she is there to support them. Cotter believes that “the formal structure of mentorship,” which has frequently been the model within the publishing industry, can be hugely beneficial for those launching their careers.
Johnson spoke about the importance of managers being connected to the success of employees, with a sense of “ownership on both sides of the coin,” and echoed Bertan’s comments about the importance of frequently and informally checking in with employees to see how they are adjusting.
Providing a support network for diverse employees to safely voice their concerns is of utmost importance, the speakers agreed. “If someone is uncomfortable, something needs to be said,” said Bertan, adding that she hopes employees would feel comfortable coming to their Human Resources departments for support. Cotter suggested that young hires from backgrounds that aren’t necessarily well represented within the work environment may hesitate to speak up about a conflict – yet she also sees it as a “learning opportunity,” explaining that “I understand as a person of color, what you say and how you respond is extremely important.” It’s a message she has imparted to her own sons, teaching them to “say what you feel and make it clear how you establish your boundaries. You must feel comfortable raising an issue in a professional manner,” she said.
While, as the Diversity Baseline Survey indicates, the industry has a long way to go, the group reflected on ways that the industry has made progress over the last 15 years.
McInerney sees that the conversation about diversity is steadily becoming “easier and more productive” than it had been in the past, transitioning into a topic that people often embrace rather than avoid discussing.
For Johnson, social media has opened up a vast amount of “access to talent” that might not have been readily accessible before. He added that talking about diversity has expanded to become more open and in-depth: “It’s a larger conversation now,” he said, with diverse candidates “pulling up others.”
In closing, the speakers offered parting advice to young people from diverse backgrounds who may be pursuing careers in the publishing field. “Take ownership of your own career, your environment, learning, and development,” Bertan suggested, while Cotter sees career success as boiling down to “responsibility and taking risks.” McInerney advised that active involvement and communication are key: “Keep talking and doing,” she said.
Johnson’s advice for young people (and perhaps equally relevant for those hiring them): “Talent trumps everything. But you ultimately have to nurture, work, and embrace your network. You get what you put in,” he said.