Friday 29 January 2021

What does good look like when it comes to Diversity and Inclusion?

Amidst all the turbulence of 2020, one striking positive was an increased attention to diversity and inclusion, sparked in particular by the death of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter movement. Society, it would seem, is increasingly unprepared to tolerate discrimination of the basis of social demographics, and that is something to be warmly welcomed.

Focusing on the publishing industry, we have seen dramatic shifts in the way companies are working. As the pandemic struck across the globe, businesses were suddenly forced to embrace flexible and remote working in a way that many had previously resisted. Almost overnight, working from home became the new normal – the days of commuting to an office now seem like distant memories for many of us. D&I advocates have long argued for flexible working as an important strategy in increasing workforce diversity, for example in creating opportunities for those returning from parental leave to progress their career while also spending time with their family. And while we need to remember that working at home during a global pandemic – with its requirement for home schooling, closure of leisure facilities, and fights for workspace and wifi access with the rest of the household – is emphatically NOT the same as 'regular’ remote working, there are nevertheless benefits to these adjustments to our expectations of how people can work. Which company could now make an argument that working from home can’t be accommodated, when it is all we have done for nearly a year?

In some ways, this feels like a fertile landscape for making progress in diversity and inclusion. But – as always – things are never that simple. We saw some positive movement in 2020, but we also experienced a number of backward steps. The UK Gender Pay reporting requirement was waived, thus the ability to track trends over time has been set back. Britain’s departure from the EU means that workers’ rights and protections are now under review. And, as the pandemic evolves, the economic fallout is still disproportionately affecting those at the bottom of the social scale.

So, as we head into 2021, it feels necessary to regroup and ask ourselves, as a sector, are we getting it right on D&I, or do we need to rethink our focus? My answer to this – as you can probably guess – is no, we’re not getting it right and yes, we do need to rethink.

While I am encouraged to see D&I so high on the agenda of so many publishers, I am often concerned by where the energy and effort is directed. We’ve seen lots of publishers focusing very heavily on what I see as inclusion-related issues, such as the choice of personal pronouns for staff and authors, or the shift to talking about ‘belonging’ and ‘bringing your whole self to work’. While these are significant and important activities, it does feel like a stage has been skipped that – now more than ever – should be the foundation of our work in improving diversity and inclusion.

To explain this, let’s think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

As Maslow argues, needs at the lower end of the hierarchy are ‘deficiency needs’. Meeting them does not increase motivation or fulfilment, yet it is essential that they are attended to. At the top of the pyramid are ‘growth needs’. These can only be effectively achieved when our deficiency needs have been met. 

In other words, it is vital to consider how well as the physiological and safety needs of your workforce are being met. I know from my work with teams that, at the moment, many employees are struggling. None of us can feel safe from personal danger during this pandemic, and news that new variants are even more transmissible is only increasing our anxiety. Many sufferers of domestic abuse are living in fear, imprisoned with their abusers for the best part of a year. And those on lower incomes sharing houses or living alone in small properties may not feel that their home situation is safe, secure or conducive to productive work.

Let me be clear: I absolutely do not think work on inclusion-related issues should stop. But just now it feels as if crucial areas such as safety and security have been left behind. My question to publishers across the globe would be whether – in this strange and disorientating world we now occupy – focusing on growth needs at this time may not be the only priority – perhaps, if your staff are feeling unsafe, those deficiency needs are where you need to put at least some of your efforts?

At Umbrella, we see our work as being fundamentally about social justice. No one’s life outcomes should be defined and decided by their gender, race, or social class. We need to ensure all issues are being addressed – fair pay, transparency, equitable working conditions and personal health, as well as those around how we self-identify, what we want to bring to work, and the culture we experience when we are there. Without resolving the structural inequalities that prevail in our industry, particularly around low pay, without meeting our employees’ needs for safety, security and freedom from fear, we cannot hope to build an inclusive culture, or achieve the social justice towards which we all aspire. 

Dr Nancy Roberts is a specialist tutor for ALPSP virtual training courses which cover Creating an Inclusive Culture, Introduction to People Management in Publishing and Becoming a Leader in Publishing.

About the author

Dr Nancy Roberts, Business Inclusivity/Umbrella and ALPSP Tutor

Dr Nancy Roberts has spent 20 years in the publishing sector working in production and operations for companies ranging from Penguin to Cambridge University Press, before leaving to specialize in diversity and inclusion. 

Nancy is the founder of Umbrella, a tech startup which uses data analytics, AI and machine learning to help businesses realise the benefits of a more diverse workforce. In her portfolio career, she is also Head of Technology and Content at Maverick, providing specialist consultancy to publishers, and delivers management and leadership training for ALPSP, the PTC and independently. 

Nancy has a PhD in Postcolonial Feminist Literary Theory and an Executive MBA from Cranfield University. She is also a NED for Break the Mould CIC and sits on various advisory boards, including We and AI, a non-profit aiming to educate and inform the public about the risks and benefits of AI, and the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, part of UKRI. She is deeply passionate about social justice and the importance of data in monitoring and achieving this goal.

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