There’s been a lot of ferment about racial equity in publishing, but will it yield concrete results? Much of the focus has been on announcing new imprints aimed at people of color, but that’s no substitute for changing the forces within publishing that create problems in the first place.
Publishing houses have been hiring and promoting more people of color, but in order to do so they often have to promote from outside the industry. That suggests that subtle and not-so-subtle forms of bias are stalling the careers of people of color, or driving them out of the industry altogether. Research documents that bias is constantly being transmitted through formal processes such as hiring and evaluations and informal processes that govern access to opportunities; publishing is no exception. Here’s how the five basic patterns of bias occur in publishing, as well as some suggestions for bias interrupters—metrics-driven, evidence-based tools that are designed to surgically eliminate them:
Prove-it-again bias: Pedigreed white men are assumed to be competent, whereas other groups have to prove themselves repeatedly. “It took seven years of interviews for an editorial assistant position,” says Amistad editorial director Tracy Sherrod, who is African American. To overcome this, publishers should ensure that all candidates—whether for hire or promotion—are assessed by the same objective criteria agreed to in advance, rather than by “gut.”
Tightrope bias: White men need only be authoritative and ambitious to succeed; others need more political savvy to find ways of displaying authority and ambition that are seen as appropriate. “White colleagues are able to speak their mind, but when it’s my turn, I can’t be direct or forthcoming without coming off as aggressive,” says Ebony LaDelle, associate director of marketing at HarperCollins. “I know that I and a lot of people like me have spent hours trying to figure out a way to write an email that appeals to a white colleague or make myself more pleasant in some way, because they can’t handle honest criticism. I’m just tired of tiptoeing around my feelings to protect theirs.” To guard against this, publishers must keep track of who gets personality critiques in performance evaluations and look for demographic patterns.
Tug-of-war bias: This occurs when bias against a group fuels conflict within the group, especially when there’s just one “diversity slot.” Even the experience of gender bias can divide women: “ ‘Race is your thing, feminism is my thing,’ I’ve been told by several of white women—including some I had trusted as allies. Evidently, if you advocate for racial diversity in a field dominated by white women, you will never be anything but the angry brown minority in the room.” Publishers need to recognize that the experience of gender bias differs by race—and make sure there’s not just one diversity slot.
Racial stereotyping and disrespect: This appears to be more prominent in publishing than in other fields. Stereotyping translates into career disadvantage: “As the only Black staff member at the press, I started to notice that I was asked to attend meetings every time there was an issue with a Black author or Black bookseller,” a source told the Scholarly Kitchen in 2018. “At the same time, I was often excluded from higher-level meetings that were more appropriate to my role.” This experience makes clear the need to avoid stereotypes, and match opportunities to talent and experience, not demography.
The maternal wall: The final pattern may be less of a factor in the publishing world: maternity leave is a given in the industry, and Covid-19 has shown the potential of remote work. Going forward, make sure that opportunities are equally available to remote, hybrid, and on-site employees.
These different efforts are harder than merely announcing a new imprint, but will be far more effective in promoting diversity in the long term. For example, a persistent complaint of people of color in publishing is that, even when a book by an author of color does get published, it may be placed with an all-white team that does not know how to market the book effectively. So if it doesn’t do well, it reinforces the accepted wisdom that books by nonwhite authors don’t do sell. To turn this around requires not just hiring more people of color, but also interrupting bias so that they don’t face everyday workplace interactions and business systems that drive one generation after another of people of color out of publishing.
Joan C. Williams is director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings—Law. Her new book is Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and for Good (Harvard Business Review Press).