It’s time to break the concrete ceiling

It’s time to break the concrete ceiling

It’s hard to imagine, but early last year I was crammed into a bustling room of young editorial assistants and agents’ assistants, swapping industry stories in a tastefully dimly lit room in Chinatown. 

It’s harder still to reflect on the fact that I ended up there by chance. I had decided to apply for an internship scheme on a whim before my last university exam in 2019. Amid stressful revisions, I hadn’t put much time into my application and so was pleasantly surprised when I received an invitation to interview. Only after entering the building (carefully decorated with much-loved titles) and listening to the stories of other prospective interns did I become aware of just how concrete the door into publishing can be, let alone the ceiling. 

I began to feel woefully unprepared, and kicked myself at the irony of only realising how much of an opportunity this was as I was stepping into a room for my interview. I decided to give it my best shot, and was elated when I received a call later to confirm that I had been selected. I wanted to enter the industry because, at heart, I was a lover of good writing. As an avid champion of Black creatives and as a writer myself, I also saw entering the industry as the perfect opportunity to see and study the internal mechanics that operate behind the stories on our shelves, and why Black ones weren’t making it through at a proportionate rate.

The concrete ceiling numbers

According to a 2000 academic article on Black working women in the US, the concrete ceiling denotes “artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organisational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organisation into management-level positions”. This phenomenon refers to Black, Asian and ethnically marginalised women, rather than white women, who are the key subjects of “glass ceiling” discussions; the multiple intersections of bias that non-white women face form a tougher barrier than the glass ceiling of gender alone, as research from illustrates. Its research reported 48% of Black women wanting to be top executives, compared to 37% of white women. 

I fell in love with publishing, and had a wonderful time meeting brilliant Black authors and working in a team where I felt culturally understood. I was lucky enough to have a placement in which I felt overwhelmingly supported and welcomed. However, gossip over industry drinks revealed that ending up with an experience like mine was simply luck of the draw. Horror stories of icy line managers, departments where “edgy” racist humour was thrown around casually over email, and tales where nobody spoke to the intern unless it was for a “race book” were common. Statistics from a survey by social enterprise Creative Access conducted in 2019 backs up these anecdotes; when it comes to feeling welcome within the industry, 55% of interns from underrepresented backgrounds (ethnically, socioeconomically and in terms of disability) stated that they “did not feel the industry was open to change and welcoming towards people from different backgrounds”. 

My internship wasn’t without its challenges, but I was lucky enough to have a wonderful Black woman from HR as my mentor. She checked in on me regularly, and was always on hand with great advice whenever I felt myself struggling to navigate my workspace. Recently, there has been an uptick in books geared towards addressing the specific challenges of Black professionals: Living While Black by Guilaine Kinouani (Ebury), Black Girl Finance by Selina Flavius (Quercus) and Millennial Black by Sophie Williams (HQ). There is also Black and Great by Rene Germain, and Twice as Hard by Opeyemi and Raphael Sofoluke (see Q&A, below).

The end of my internship was clipped short by the pandemic, and while I was heartbroken there wasn’t enough room in my imprint for me to stay, I took it as a sign to chase my own literary aspirations. Of those who chose to stay on, however, the Creative Access survey states that “32% said they had found it difficult to progress in the profession, with one likening it to ‘wading through mud’ and another branding it an ‘endless, fruitless slog’ that had left them on the verge of quitting many times”. A further 45% said that they “had not seen an improvement in diversity since they started working in publishing”. 

 To hiring managers, the evidence and advice is clear: there must be a proactive, authentic dedication to deconstructing workplace inequality on every level, and change must come from the top. Challenging “normal” work environments and practices is the only way to ensure these statistics and retention rates are the exception and not the rule. The ultimate responsibility of breaking through concrete ceilings resides not with publishing hopefuls once they get through the door, but with the publishing divisions that wish to house their successful future careers.

Theophina Gabriel is an award-winning poet and freelance writer and artist. She studied Philosophy and Theology at the University of Oxford and after graduating worked at MerkyBooks. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Onyx, a magazine championing Black creatives.



Q&A: Rene Germain and Opeyemi Sofoluke on how firms can instigate real, lasting change

How have you observed structural racism playing out in the workplace? 
[Through] a lack of support when it comes to promotion and career advancement. Across the industry, we often see that Black professionals do not progress at the same rate as their white counterparts. The long-term impact of this is that fewer Black leaders are being promoted to some of the most senior positions in organisations, and so what we see is the constant underrepresentation of Black talent from the mid-management level and above. We often hear conversations on where to find Black talent, or why we don’t see more Black people in leadership roles. The point is: Black is talent out there, we exist, but are we being given the same opportunities to progress and advance as our peers?
What do you think about diversity workshops and unconscious bias training? 
If I’m being honest, I see [both] as “Diversity Theatre”. The problem with these unconscious bias trainings and diversity workshops is that: They omit responsibility. This idea that the racism and discrimination Black and other underrepresented employees are subjected to is unconscious is simply not true. Black employees are mostly subjected to discrimination from people who are consciously trying to cause harm.

They fail to address the systemic and structural racism that exists within our society. And therefore allow these biases to manifest in the workplace and other institutions. We can’t try and fix something without addressing the root cause. This will require a lot of uncomfortable conversations to be had regarding systemic racism, white privilege and more, but they are necessary. We’re at a point in time where we can’t afford to shy away from these topics any more. 

They don’t work. Hundreds of studies have proved that such training doesn’t reduce bias, alter people’s behaviour or significantly change the workplace. 
How can inequality be removed within publishing? 
Invest: Invest in recruiting Black people into decision-making roles and Black people across all areas, from PR to design, marketing, sales, editing and more. Invest in Black authors who write about a diverse range of topics, not just limited to race because that’s what you “think” Black authors should write about. 

Invest in providing access: Programmes that provide insights into career paths into publishing for Black candidates and programmes to support budding Black authors. Invest in paying everyone fairly; we know from the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag the disparities between what Black and white authors are paid.

Build relationships: I think a lot of the inequality that Black people face in publishing comes from ignorance; those in decision-making positions not truly understanding or doing the work to understand Black writers and Black audiences. Building relationships with the relevant networks and communities, listening and learning from them would massively help here.

Be consistent: no one-off workshop or training will fix the inequalities that Black people face in the industry. The types of books being acquired, how and where Black authors are being promoted, the lack of Black people in decision-making roles... these issues will need to be addressed in a variety of ways and over a period of time. Working consistently on this, and not just rushing out ill-prepared initiatives, is really the only way to achieve change. 

Rene Germain’s Black and Great, an anthology addressing the unique challenges many Black people face in the workplace, will be published by Coronet in August. Opeyemi and Raphael Sofoluke’s Twice as Hard, a blueprint for navigating success, will be published by DK Life in June.