Thursday, June 17, 2010
What We Endure and Why We Endure It
Since the recent Davidar allegations came to light I’ve been thinking a lot about how to use this opportunity to create a dialogue about the culture of publishing. As someone who has worked in both publishing spheres, book and magazine, the allegations, however disturbing and upsetting, are actually unsurprising to me. The most striking thing about the sexual harassment claim is how quickly it has sparked a wave of private admissions from others that they too had experienced or seen something they felt uncomfortable about in their own publishing workplaces. Ranging from a brief comment or touch, to shockingly obscene suggestions or actions, it seems that so many people in publishing have a story tell, and more importantly that they’ve accepted  this is “just the way things are.” This post is not about Davidar, because frankly I have no authority to speak on the subject. Instead I’m interested in talking about how the news of the scandal has sparked a necessary re-examination of the publishing workplace. Frankly, as the publisher of a feminist magazine, I’d be remiss not to.

I’ve always viewed publishing culture as a uniquely permissive one, a place where the small “labour of love” community, long hours, and lack of time for non-work socializing create a more relaxed, familial, and occasionally inappropriate atmosphere. Because of the demanding nature of the job, people find real friendship, love, marriage, and yes, lots and lots of sex in publishing. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

What is wrong is when that kind of sexually charged atmosphere becomes an excuse for exclusion and abuse—sort of a “get on board or get out of the club” mentality. I’ve written about this before, the idea that this environment has the potential to be both exceptionally fulfilling and soul-destroyingly dysfunctional, where the line between appropriate and inappropriate is so often blurred. Perhaps people say nothing about harassment out of fear or reprisal, or because they believe that this is “what we signed up for,” or because no one wants to be the difficult one at the party. (Or, perhaps a lot of us don’t really know what the definition of sexual harassment is.)

So many of us, regardless of gender, have had a moment where we were unsure about the rules, about what is right and wrong in the workplace, and instead of talking openly about it we just follow the cues. The answers to “Am I allowed to say that? Am I allowed to do that?” are not always clear, so we, quite naturally, look to the leader. It’s easy to observe that the average intern pool is predominantly female and the average publishing executive is male, that women on average make considerably less than their male counterparts, that according to reports a majority of publishing is female but only small percentage of that is management, and the power dynamics that result are undeniable. In such a small, connected industry, one rife with gossip, standing up and calling bullshit is near impossible.

However, someone has talked openly about it, albeit anonymously, and the resulting attention to her story is indicative of the fact that so many in the publishing sphere hunger for that kind of open dialogue but fear the damage it will do to their careers. The anonymous blogger, who wrote about her personal experiences in the book industry in reaction to Davidar’s departure, sums up this notion of “taking cues” and being unsure of the rules, afraid of repercussions:

"I flirted back, when he'd flirt, and I'm ashamed. But I blame him. I blame the way he manipulated us into thinking it was all part of the job, the "culture" of the office. We were often told to "entertain" people at our parties, like we were geisha. Dress sexy, be the first ones on the dance floor, get drinks. Looking back, I feel like we were supposed to represent not the brains and talent of our office, but the tits and ass. Lucky for him, we were a smart, hard-working bunch of people, and we managed to make that place work."

Her story has been disseminated widely, culminating in a pick-up by the Huffington Post this morning. Scanning the comments section of her post, which has seen hits from Random House New York, HarperCollins New York, Simon & Shuster U.S., and the CBC, you see immediately that people are eager to discuss and admit a culture of harassment:

“I was massively naive and so grateful to finally have a foot in the door that I turned a blind eye to all the boss's flirting and innuendo. He was always inviting me out for drinks and lunch and you can't say no to your new boss.”
“Twenty years ago, when I started in publishing in London (the UK one) your description of office life was the norm. It was toxic, frightening, abusive. I am very sorry you had to endure it too.”
“Isn't it interesting how many of us have this experience in our first publishing job.”
“How common is this - not only in this industry, but in others as well?”
“Bottom line, this is not acceptable workplace behaviour, and how women react to it is often a survival strategy.”

Although, again, the anonymous blogger’s experience is in book publishing I’ve worked in both and I think there is definitely cultural overlap. We learn from those around us, and so many of us float from books to mags, so it’s not a stretch to say that this kind of toxic environment bleeds into both spheres. And when we don’t talk about it, because we’re afraid of getting in trouble, afraid of getting fired, it will continue. (I know, easier said than done.)

Publishing is so often a glory sport, a place that encourages (demands?) aggressive ego and entitlement, and I’ve had my parts grabbed and discussed at enough magazine and book parties to know that somewhere along the line it became okay, even encouraged, to cross the line. I don’t have a solution, but I do think the silver lining of the Davidar allegations is that it’s given us a forum to talk about what has apparently, given industry reactions, become commonplace. This discussion is a positive step forward, and those who chose to share their stories, anonymous or not, should be applauded.
- Stacey May Fowles
About Me
Stacey May Fowles
Stacey May is the circulation and marketing director at The Walrus and volunteer publisher of Shameless, a feminist magazine for teenage girls. She has assisted in circulation and business development projects for Descant, Magazines Canada and Hive Magazine.
Most Recent Blog Comment
DA says:
Two things need to happen. Firstly, an environment must be created where people feeling harrassed c...
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