Yes, Us Too: Sexism and Sexual Harassment in Scholarly Publishing

Catherine Cocks's picture

One of the characteristics of workplaces where sexual harassment and gender discrimination are common is a predominantly male staff, where the few women present may be seen as challenging gender norms just by being there. By that measure (and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers several others), publishing ought to be a fairly respectful and egalitarian place to work. Reinforcing what multiple recent surveys have shown, Lee and Low Books’ 2019 diversity study found that 75 percent of staff at publishing companies in North America identify as cis women. (University presses participated in this survey for the first time last year; their demographics are very similar to those in commercial publishing.) Yet sexual harassment and discrimination happen at university presses more often than many of us might have expected, as a 2019 survey by the AUPresses’ Gender Equity and Cultures of Respect task force (GECOR) revealed.

The survey found that 36 percent of respondents had experienced harassment, discrimination, or other misconduct within their press, and 51 percent indicated that they had witnessed or received first-hand accounts of them. When sexual harassment happened, what recourse did victims and witnesses have? A substantial but still too-low 62 percent of respondents indicated that there were clear protocols for communicating experiences of misconduct. In light of these numbers, the report recommends that presses establish explicit codes of conduct and clear policies for handling misconduct, including offering reporting options outside the press.

Behind these findings lie the larger issue that, despite being a female-dominated industry, publishing continues to be shaped by historical and ongoing sexism. The predominance of women declines in the managerial and executive ranks, and women earn less than their male peers at every level. The disparity is even more striking when we take into account race and ethnicity, as people of color continue to be underrepresented in publishing, especially in managerial and executive positions. The Lee and Low survey found that overall, 76 percent of employees in American publishing companies (including university presses) self-identify as white/Caucasian—but 49 percent of interns in these firms identify as people of color. For context, the US Bureau of the Census estimates that just over 60 percent of the total US population was white and non-Hispanic in 2019. The GECOR survey found that 40 percent of respondents think university presses can do more to promote gender equity, and 75 percent think the same for racial and ethnic equity.

In addition to administering the survey, the GECOR task force also reviewed the AUPresses’ 2016 and 2018 compensation surveys, finding a gender pay gap similar to that of higher education generally. The AAUP’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession shows that 93 percent of all reporting institutions pay men more than women at the same rank (table D). At university presses, the gender pay gap starts at the entry level and widens from there on, with women earning on average .78 of their male peers’ salaries. There’s some positive news at the director level, as female directors earned .93 as much as their male peers in 2018. To make such disparities visible and fixable, the GECOR task force recommends that each press conduct an annual gender parity compensation review.

The GECOR Task Force report also underscores that gender inequity may also shape what and how university presses publish. Those of us working in publishing can’t assume that implicit bias is something only other people suffer from, or that we are not affected by gendered disparities in the scholarly communities we serve. Whose work are we publishing? Who do we invite to edit journals and book series, to peer-review manuscripts, to serve on our editorial boards? Once we acquire projects, how do we position them in our catalogs? Might implicit bias shape our decisions about print runs and marketing campaigns?

The truth is, few presses can answer these questions. Few if any systematically collect demographic data about their authors or peer reviewers. It would be easier to collect such data for current journal editors, series editors, and editorial board members, more difficult to extend such data-gathering backward into the past, as it would be to analyze backlist titles. Without this information, presses would be unwise to think they’ve overcome the gender discrimination otherwise so well-documented in publishing, higher education, and American society generally.

In short, the GECOR report urges scholarly publishers to be much more intentional about achieving equity in staffing and publishing decisions. Providing additional training for managers, clarifying policies on career advancement and handling misconduct, and posting codes of ethics to their websites and implementing them through training and data collection are all things presses can do on their own. Directors can review staff compensation annually in the context of the AUPresses survey on industry-wide compensation rates, with an eye toward eliminating inequities. We can all also participate in campaigns at our institutions and in our communities to address infrastructural limits like a lack of lactation rooms and gender-neutral and ADA-compliant bathrooms. Decent parental leave policies and affordable, high-quality childcare are society-wide goals that we can also strive for locally.

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