Mahey-Morgan urges publishers to focus on boardroom diversity

Mahey-Morgan urges publishers to focus on boardroom diversity

Crystal Mahey-Morgan, the founder of OWN IT!, has called on the industry to stop focusing on entry-level schemes to improve diversity, but instead to look at the boardrooms “where the real decisions are actually made”. She has called on the industry to interview at least one minority candidate for every role it advertises throughout the whole of 2017.

Giving the keynote speech at the Building Inclusivity in Publishing conference yesterday (15th November) held by the London Book Fair (LBF) and the Publishers Association (PA), with The Bookseller as a media partner, Mahey-Morgan spoke of the moves that publishers are taking to improve lack of diversity in the industry and criticised what she sees as the over-reliance on entry-level schemes which ignore diversity in board rooms.

“We need to stop believing that these entry level schemes are something to be proud of because we all know it’s the board rooms where the real decisions are actually made,” she said. “If you want to talk to me about schemes, then where are the schemes to ensure that our boardrooms are more diverse? Where are the schemes - working alongside the entry level ones - to find senior people from diverse backgrounds? Even if that means enticing them in from other industries if we don’t have them to promote from within right now.”

She added: “But wait, let’s think about that for a minute. If you bring in a new person, say from a more diverse background, from a different industry to come into a board room does that mean an existing member would have to step aside? Would that be a step too far? Do we really want change or do we just want to talk about it? Let’s not be naive in thinking that in a few years time that entry level candidates will be promoted into decision making roles. Making the whole conversation about entry level, as we all too often do recently, ignores the very real glass ceilings that exist right now.”

Ahead of Mahey-Morgan's speech, Hachette UK announced it intended to target diversity in its senior management team with its Diverse Leaders Future Mentoring Scheme, designed to give up-and-coming stars from non-traditional publishing backgrounds the skills and confidence to rise up in the business. 

In her keynote speech Mahey-Morgan also argued that the industry needed to “unlearn and retrain” the way it thinks “so its unconscious bias and the ingrained notion of ‘hire in your own image’ can truly be eradicated" because "on the whole - let’s be honest -everyone in publishing pretty much looks the same".

She added: “It’s hard to break through the glass ceilings and move beyond the schemes because despite everyone's good intentions - and everyone does have good intentions I believe that - despite that, the rhetoric never really moves into reality. Let’s not confuse the conferences, the panel discussions, the articles and the hashtags for action, because they’re not action they’re merely conversation.” 

Mahey-Morgan called on all publishers to pledge to implement the Rooney Rule, a policy that requires employers to interview at least one minority candidate for every role it advertises, throughout the whole of 2017. She said: “Naturally if you interview a greater pool of people then you hire a greater pool of people and organically you have a greater diverse workforce."

Robyn Travis, an author with OWN IT!, also gave a keynote speech at the conference, detailing his journey into becoming an author and describing how he didn’t feel supported by the publishing industry and how he was alienated from reading as a young child because he didn’t see himself represented in the books that he read.

“It’s interesting how I’ve come to become an author because when I was younger I never really read when I was growing up; I never felt like books were for me in any shape or form”, Travis said. “I didn’t see myself in a lot of books growing up. I didn’t hear my voice in the books… I couldn’t imagine that books were for entertainment purposes, it was more like a chore when I was reading, it was a thing that reminded me of school. And what made my relationship even more difficult is that I have dyslexia.”

He described getting caught up in a “negative cycle of violence” when he was younger along with “others my age who looked and spoke like me and went through a similar struggle”. 

He said: “I always felt that we weren’t given the same opportunities in our home lives so from a young age we didn’t have the emotional maturity to make the right decisions. On the back of those bad decisions, I, and a few others, got labeled as gang members from as early as 12, 13 [years old]. The truth is, when you’re told something enough times, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and you believe that you are the label if you keep hearing it.

“I explore much of this in [his first book, a memoir] Prisoner to the Streets (OWN IT!) and it’s something that I still think about a lot: imagine if society told me that I was capable of becoming a writer instead of what is perceived as a gang member, imagine if society made me feel that I could be the author of books that would be published and read by all sorts of people, from those who look and speak like me to those who are worlds apart”.

He added: “When I was younger I said that books weren’t for me that I couldn't see or hear myself in them and they felt academic rather than portraying my reality. As an author I hope that through my writing young people that feel the same about books that I felt will be able to start enjoying them and realise how powerful and entertaining they will be.”

Speaking of the publication of Travis’ second book Mama Can’t Raise No Man (OWN IT!), Mahey-Morgan suggested that Travis is “possibly” the only male black British debut novelist published in 2016. “That’s not through a lack of emerging black British talent or Asian British talent. It’s a flaw in the industry for not finding it and believing in it and publishing it”, she said.

“Robyn’s book launched to a sold out Hackney Empire which has a capacity of 1,300. It reinvented what a book launch could look like, from the evening - which was a live mix of music, poetry and comedy - to the audience which was 95% BAME and working class. Remember this is 1,300 people in the audience.

“In fact just a month after publication, we have had to reprint [the book]. We’re so often told that certain types of books are not commercially viable, so it’s really important when we see evidence such as this to suggest otherwise. Robyn’s keynote highlighted the negative effects of young people not being able to see or hear themselves in books. The other important point here [is that] we all have a responsibility to publish a wide variety of books for a wide variety of audiences, as people invested in the industry we have to make sure that we’re contributing to the empathy that’s put out into the world.”

Mahey-Morgan added that empathy "in the new days of [Donald] Trump" becoming President-elect of the United States means that "we have to fight harder than ever before to foster equality and understanding for all".

The conference also heard from Hachette UK c.e.o. Tim Hely Hutchinson, who called for the defence of publishing's "liberal" principles as the world lurches politically towards the right.

The PA and LBF also launched an Inclusivity in Publishing Award at the event.