Publishing attracts people who love books, reading, and ideas. But for many Black professionals in publishing, there’s a disconnect between the love of the medium and their work experiences, which can be rife with isolation, exclusion, and stalled routes to leadership.
The challenges these workers face reflect the central argument I make in Gray Areas: How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism and What We Can Do to Fix It (Amistad, out now): that key aspects of hiring, organizational culture, and advancement are structured in ways that maintain racial inequality.
Organizational culture refers to the norms, values, and expectations that characterize a company. Aspects of organizational culture are usually implicit, so they may not be apparent until they are violated. Furthermore, they vary widely between companies and industries.
Many publishing houses can be characterized by clan culture, wherein staff are expected to work collaboratively. This type of organizational culture might seem benign—how could working closely create problems for Black employees?
Constance, one of the workers I interviewed for my book, provides an instructive example. A professor of chemical engineering, she found that the clan culture in her academic unit encouraged close collaborations and connections. But it also left colleagues unable to see or rectify the chilly climate she experienced as one of very few Black women in a white-male-dominated space. A clan culture in publishing might encourage workers to view each other as family, but if companies aren’t paying attention to racial dynamics, Black workers may end up feeling more like distant cousins at best.
Many companies try to rectify these issues with diversity training. These trainings have become nearly ubiquitous. But despite their prevalence, mandated trainings can, according to a 2021 piece in the Economist, actually do more harm than good.
Researchers found that mandating diversity training can make white workers resentful and less interested in and sensitive to racial discrimination at work. Perhaps surprisingly, as shown in the anthology Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, Black workers, too, are often uninterested in diversity training, which seems more intended to achieve regulatory compliance than address the real issues Black workers encounter in the workplace.
I found this to be the case for Amalia, a journalist I interviewed. She worked for an outlet that encouraged her reporting on race and culture. But she also noted systemic barriers to hiring Black journalists and experienced extreme racist harassment online. Diversity trainings aren’t designed to address these issues. Black workers in publishing may experience similar situations and feel that diversity training does little to offset the challenges they encounter.
Finally, my research shows that advancement isn’t just shaped by skill and success but through networks and connections, especially with mentors and sponsors who can aid career advancement. For Kevin, who worked in the nonprofit sector, being a Black man surrounded by mostly white women colleagues made finding mentors and sponsors difficult. He usually felt pigeonholed by his supervisors’ perceptions of him, which he felt were shaped by racial and gendered stereotypes. The 2019 study Being Black in Corporate America, from nonprofit thinktank Coqual, found that Black workers have less access to managers and supervisors than colleagues of other racial groups. For Black workers in publishing, this can adversely impact routes to promotion and help explain underrepresentation in leadership roles.
So, what can publishing do differently? Fortunately, there are evidence-based solutions, as demonstrated in Getting to Diversity: What Works and What Doesn’t by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev. Instead of mandating diversity training, publishing houses can institute diversity task forces that identify and rectify racial issues related to hiring, work environment, and advancement.
Publishing houses can also include historically Black colleges and universities in recruitment efforts and expand mentoring programs to include all workers. These strategies can help companies identify issues that Black workers like Constance, Amalia, and Kevin have experienced that might otherwise be overlooked. Doing so could help diversify the industry and allow Black workers to thrive in the field they love.
Adia Harvey Wingfield is a sociologist whose research explores racial and gender inequality in professional occupations.