Progressive or performative? Disability staff networks come under scrutiny

Progressive or performative? Disability staff networks come under scrutiny

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, the line between “progressive” and “performative” is blurred. Acts that appear progressive—borne from a real commitment to a better future—can end up only skin-deep, while statements made for publicity alone can inadvertently lead to real change.

How can publishers address their lack of diversity without being solely performative? One initiative is in-house staff networks: groups started, maintained and chaired by minority communities within the business. 

Most large publishing houses now have networks, though safe spaces for staff would benefit companies of all sizes. My publisher Immediate Media’s network was formed in the past year, but some have been going for much longer: Hachette UK’s first networks started in 2016 and now more than 1,000 employees are involved in at least one of their eight groups.

But what decides whether a network is progressive or performative?

Backing from senior members of staff
When setting up a network, it’s “worth getting as many powerful people on your team as possible,” says Ellie Drewry, founder of the disability network at Penguin Random House (PRH). Whether these senior employees are members of the community or not—and surveys show it’s more likely not, in the case of disability—they are crucial to the formation of a network. Without them, Drewry says she would have struggled to get the group off the ground.

Remove barriers to joining
Most networks welcome allies and, as one co-chair highlighted, this is key for disability networks since there are so few of us working in publishing: the 2020 Publishers Association survey suggests just 8% of trade employees have a disability or impairment, and 14% of those were not open about their health condition at work. Therefore, it’s important that participation in these networks doesn’t require disclosure and is confidential.

Make a long-term, strategic commitment
Diversity initiatives must be supported by company-wide policies and established practices, according to the 2013 Business Case for Equality and Diversity report.

For PRH, a two-way relationship between HR and networks helps the company “tailor solutions so they are right for the colleagues they are supporting”. Publishers can also show commitment through partnerships with external organisations, as Hachette UK did when developing dyslexia-friendly guidelines with the British Dyslexia Association and Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Have respect for your employees’ time
Expecting chairs to “fit the role around the day job”, as one confidante put it, simply piles more pressure on employees who are already feeling the weight of being in the minority. 

Of the three “Big Five” publishers who responded to my request for comment, only PRH recognised their chairs’ work with financial compensation and formally allocated time out of their day job to manage their duties. HarperCollins said being part of a network “is paid in that it happens within work hours”, while Hachette UK’s chairs are volunteers but get “an additional 5% stretch bonus target”.

Train your staff
To see real benefits from diversity initiatives, according  to the Business Case for Equality and Diversity report, publishers must invest in appropriate training for leaders. But I didn’t find any who had arranged formal training for chairs.

Company-wide inclusivity training was common, as were events for individual networks, but chairs need investment to confidently handle the huge responsibilities of their role.

Accept that networks cannot solve all
To be progressive is to move towards a goal. Networks can only take us so far in solving the inequalities within the industry. 

Within this issue of The Bookseller, you’ll find more steps we need to take. It’s up to you as to whether this piece is solely performative.

Amy Barrett is a chronically ill science journalist and fiction writer. She is also the creator of The Discriptionary, a website dedicated to positive and truthful depictions of disability in books.