November 1, 2017

Book publishing still has a huge problem with women’s safety in the workplace


Back in October, Rachel Deahl, John Maher, and Jim Milliot at Publishers Weekly polled and interviewed women from the book publishing industry about their experiences of sexual assault and harrassment in the workplace. The responses they received were as saddening as we should expect given the long, long, long, long, long list of stomach-churning revelations that have come to light over the last couple of months.

Despite the fact that women make up an estimated eighty percent of the publishing workforce, episodes of gross misconduct, serial harrassment, and violent assault appear to be no less prevalent than in the film and news industries. As Deahl, Maher, and Milliot (let’s call them DM2 going forward) point out, this is likely due to the fact that men (again, just an estimated twenty percent of the overall workforce) are disproportionately represented in management positions (more than half of managment positions are occupied by men), and, almost universally, receive higher compensation for equal work.

We’ve written about the absurdity of this situation before, but what the DM2 piece makes clear is that these imbalances in representation and financial compensation are not abstract problems. They make people (almost always women and/or people of color) vulnerable to the predations of powerful individuals, and they insulate predatory individuals from the consequences of their actions. Which is to say again that the stakes here are very, very high.

None of the incidents in the PW piece will surprise anyone at this point. They are nauseatingly familiar, and you should read them, but we won’t repeat them here. What we will do is point out a couple of dynamics that bear mentioning and perhaps deserve a little extra emphasis.

Firstly, DM2 note that “Women at corporate publishers, by and large, did not respond to questions on the subject.” It’s difficult (and would be irresponsible) to guess at the specific reasons why this is so. Still, though, it’s worth remembering that material conditions, and the configurations of power and capital, have profoundly human effects. In this case, consolidation may have contributed to an environment in which women are less comfortable speaking out aboutabuses that we can be almost certain have taken place.

Of course, this means that most of the tesimony on sexual assault and harassment that DM2 have been able to gather comes from indpendent and small press workers, proving that anti-corporate sentiment doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes for women.

In the testimony of indie press employees, two things stand out. First is the account of one woman who, after being sexually harrassed by her boss and consulting a lawyer, ended up staying in her job without filing charges or taking other work, telling DM2, “I should have just left the job. I tried — I applied to dozens of [other] jobs.”

It’s a commonplace in the industry that competition for any position is extremely fierce. It’s not as often remarked that this competition doesn’t just make it difficult to get into publishing, but also undermines workers’ power by implicity threatening those who would seek a safer workplace with joblessness.

The second thing of note was this account of a group of women at a small publisher who had collectively approached HR with a number of complaints about the head of the company.

“It went well — or so we thought,” she said. The women soon realized that what they had shared with their HR representative had been passed along, without their knowledge, to the director, CEO, executives, and upper management at the publisher. The women were then asked to meet, individually, with the company’s CFO. “At no point [in my meeting with the CFO] was my safety or the safety of the other women addressed,” she said. “I never heard from HR again about the incident.” The women who made the complaint all left the publisher, and the man they complained about continues to work there.

This is important because it demonstrates pretty clearly the power of informal collective action (these women were able to create solidarity in the workplace and exersise it in defense of their safety), as well as the necessity of formal collective action (their collective demand was ultimately fruitless, because management was able to easily shrug off their efforts).

This is a point that Alex Press made in a recent Vox piece addressing the limitations and possibilities of informal “whisper networks” like the “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” document we wrote about a few weeks ago. Press is cleared-eyed about the tools currently available to us, and hopeful that better solutions might be built atop our flawed defense mechanisms. Stronger unions, in which women’s workplace issues are given the priority they deserve, are one avenue we might pursue, as are broader, more effective, and more democratic versions of the “whisper network.” As Press writes:

I can imagine a more formal body that compiles allegations, verifies their validity, and acts on that information — perhaps by connecting women who accuse the same man so as to enable them to coordinate a legal or public claim against him. This could be done through existing professional associations or unions, or as an entirely new project.

It seems particularly valuable in this moment, when the awful magnitude of the situation is so clear and so urgent, to imagine and fight for radical solutions that work for all women, across industries, at all levels of seniority, experience and influence. And while the limitations of the union system and the “whisper network” as they exists are clear, the solidarity and compassion modeled by both seem apropriate aspirations at the moment. Onward, together.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.