Survey of BAME interns shows mixed experiences of the industry

Survey of BAME interns shows mixed experiences of the industry

A survey of people entering publishing through Creative Access show the vast majority want to stay in the industry, but they are fairly split as to how well the trade is diversifying its workforce.

The organisation, which placed its 1,000th black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) paid intern in the creative industries this year (300 in publishing), asked those who entered the publishing world a series of questions about their experience. In relatively positive news for the industry, from a total of 66 respondents, only 24% said their placement put them off working in publishing, while just 18% had since left the book trade.

However, 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. The results also paint a very mixed picture on how the respondents perceived the industry’s attitude towards diversity. It found 55% of them did not feel the industry was open to change and welcoming towards people from different backgrounds. A further 45% said they had not seen an improvement in diversity since they started working in publishing.

One respondent left their role at a literary agency after becoming convinced "there would always be a ceiling". She said that a role that was equivalent to hers was only offered to Cambridge graduates and people in the office chatted about being friends with the royal family. "Every face and every opinion was the same," she said. "This filtered down into the type of books we’d take on as an agency."

Of those who were critical, several respondents claimed diversity had merely been treated as a buzzword or an exercise in "box-ticking", without any practical steps taken to create an inclusive approach. A trend to only see diverse employees in lower-paid jobs was another common complaint.

Creative industry staffers address a Creative Access showcase hosted at the Faber Academy in November 2016

Slow to change
One worker, who joined an academic publisher three years ago, said the industry had changed its attitude to diversity but it had remained challenging to get promoted, with discrimination from higher up deterring her from applying to higher roles. She said: "I think there is an interest in diversity as it sounds good for companies and is at the forefront of a lot of conversations right now, but that doesn’t mean companies and publishers are striving for inclusivity and have a genuine interest in inclusivity at all levels.

"I’m still yet to see people of colour in higher positions in the publishing industry and see people [regularly] progress at the level of their peers past the internship stage within a company. I have seen people move on and move up in some instances, but it’s not enough."

Another candidate said they had seen BAME colleagues passed up for promotion in favour of white employees with less experience and there were few "genuine champions" of diversity at the big trade house where they worked in editorial. "I think so much more needs to be done that it’s actually hilarious we think we are doing well," they said. "Creative Access is the only actual thing that does more than just talk about diversity."

The respondent told an interview horror story about going for a "dream" assistant editor role but being led into only talking about diversity by an all-white panel. "The first interview went very well—the second, not so much," they said. "I was asked about improving readership numbers in communities that are ‘impoverished’, a question I don’t particularly have the answer to, given my relative junior status in this industry. However, I answered the best I could. I was repeatedly asked about how we can get non-white and poor people to read more books. When I was rejected for the job, I was told that I lacked a whole view of the market.

"I think there’s a lot of talk and not enough action," they concluded. "We need to diversify the people who are hiring other people, and if we can’t do that, then I don’t know that we’re doing anything."

A matter of time?
But Darren Barnes said the impression he had was of a genuine desire to become more diverse, adding that things might just take time to change. Barnes joined Pan Macmillan as a regional sales rep in Scotland last year and has taken up several other internships since. He told The Bookseller: "In my role, there were certainly other brown faces there, and I’d look on the Creative Access website and from the roles offered it looked like the publisher was really trying to diversify the types of people that work in the building. From what I know, publishing can be slightly fusty, it can be clumsy, but I did feel there was a genuine desire to do something about this."

However, he suggested the low pay of junior roles and internships could still be putting off those from different backgrounds. "I think the fact that publishing generally doesn’t pay amazingly has maybe deterred people from under-represented backgrounds applying in the first place," he said. "A lot of them don’t come from places with lots of money. If an entry-level job in London pays £21,000 a year, is that feasible for people who don’t have another source of income?"

Point of Access
Josie Dobrin, c.e.o. of Creative Access, said the publishing world had been supportive over the years and, with help from the Publishers Association, there were more possibilities to enter the sector, including apprenticeships, internships and paid work-experience opportunities. However, she stressed there was still a long to go if the industry wanted to reflect the population.

She said: "Although there are some very positive stories, there are an equal number of people who have either left the profession or feel they are unable to progress. We know that one of the main reasons why young people from BAME backgrounds choose not to enter the profession, or leave once they’ve completed an internship, is because they don’t see others who look like them in senior positions. The industry has a job to do to make sure that the sector is not only welcoming in the first instance, but allows entrants to flourish and progress through individual organisations and the sector itself."

Stephen Lotinga, c.e.o. of the Publishers Association, told The Bookseller more needed to be done on diversity, but it would take time. He said: "It’s encouraging that so many Creative Access candidates are still working within publishing, but you only have to see the response to this survey to know that more needs to be done before we are the open and inclusive industry we aspire to be.

"Real change will take time, but we also have to show the incredibly talented young people from black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds working in publishing that we are serious about this and there is every opportunity open to them to progress. The Publishers Association is currently undertaking its third annual diversity survey as part of our efforts to better understand the workforce, and we would encourage every publisher to participate. Data alone won’t solve this problem, but it does help provide a better basis for informed discussions."

First person
Yassine Belkacemi

Yassine Belkacemi joined the John Murray Press publicity department as a Creative Access intern in April 2014, became a permanent member of staff in March 2015, and is now senior publicity manager.

He said: "Overall, I don’t think there is a hostility to change, but I do think there is a lot of unconscious bias still at play. I think this is derived from the traditional publishing culture that still dominates. I don’t think people go out of their way to make people from non-traditional backgrounds unwelcome, but I think the culture is still intimidating and daunting to new employees from diverse backgrounds when they first join.

"There have been great strides to change this. Within the publishing house I work in, Hachette UK, there has undoubtedly been an improvement in diversity through the Changing the Story initiatives, to hiring processes, to diversity training, the Diverse Future Leaders Scheme, employee networks and so on. It is my own view that we’ll only start to see the truly sustainable effect of these diversity initiatives once we see people from diverse backgrounds become c.e.o., m.d. and head of department, and who rise into middle-management—that is the next step. Once we attract new staff from a range of diverse backgrounds, how do we then arm them with the necessary skills and opportunities to progress and develop in order that they can see a pathway for their career that leads into a boardroom? But I am conscious that this will take longer to achieve."