Affirm Press publishing director Martin Hughes (with senior editor Ruby Ashby-Orr) explores what it means to shape a better culture and create safer workplaces.

At the recent Leading Edge Books conference in Hobart, I was chatting with a group of booksellers and publishers when Clementine Ford walked past. A woman in our circle said, ‘Clem is a bit extreme for me.’

I jumped in with the usual confidence: ‘But that’s what feminism needs’ until, with perfect comic timing, Kirsty Wilson, sales and marketing director at Text, interjected.

‘Please, Martin,’ she said. ‘Do tell us what feminism needs.’

Hilarity ensued. She was entirely right of course. I wanted to make the point that every movement needs people on the extreme side if it’s going to succeed, but in this case the point wasn’t mine to make.

In the wake of #MeToo, Books+Publishing’s survey on sexual harassment officially revealed what many women in the industry already knew: sexual harassment is common, and a lot of the time it goes unreported. It’s not a big leap to assume that lack of reporting has something to do with the fact that most of the people in senior positions in our industry are men. We don’t have official numbers for Australia, but in the US, a 2016 report found that although 78% of employees in the publishing industry were women, men were seriously overrepresented at management level, and dominated the very top positions. It doesn’t take much digging to find similar patterns in Australia. (I should acknowledge that Affirm Press is adding to this statistic with two male owners in an otherwise entirely female staff.) So while it still feels wrong that someone like mea white, middle-class manis getting a platform to talk about feminism, I’m also conscious that as policy-makers we have to get involved, and start acting on our words. 

When it comes to gender equality, publishers and booksellers have to deal with the issue on two levels: as professional workplaces, and as organisations that help shape culture.

On the cultural side of things, feminists in our industry have been fighting for better representation for women for decades, and they’ve made great strides in recent years. There’s no better example than the Stella Prize, which in 2013 shone a spotlight on the lack of awards recognition for women authors in Australia, and countered that injustice by creating what is now one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country. Women writers have slowly been gaining ground, and publishers are working harder to sign and promote women authors with feminist messages. In recent years Ford, Annabel Crabb, Tracey Spicer, Angela Pippos and many other writers have all shifted the conversation forward with smart, insightful and unapologetically outspoken books. There’s also increased distaste for the kind of misogynistic writing that only decades ago would have been largely considered normal. While there’s still a lot to do here, it’s heartening to see that so many of our best-known and bestselling Australian authors, from Liane Moriarty to Sofie Laguna to Jane Harper, are women. 

But, the Books+Publishing survey has made it clear that we also have to look inwards, at how our companies are structured and how our employees are supported. Intense working relationships with authors are a natural part of publishingand part of what makes it such a great industry to work in. But the flip side is that this can put staff in vulnerable positions, particularly those who are on the road or in close contact with authors, such as publicists and editors. Publicists, in particular, have reported feeling powerless in the face of inappropriate behaviour from important authorsthere’s the sense that you just have to smile and put up with it to keep the stars happy.

We can do much better than this.

The survey prompted us at Affirm Press to communicate with our staff about what we considered the standard—that they should feel respected and safe to raise any concerns about sexual harassment. While I was relieved that no one had any incidents to report, I was surprised to find that our employees weren’t totally sure where they’d stand if anything of this kind was to take place. We’re a close-knit team with open communication and relaxed reporting structures, and I’d thought it was obvious that anyone who felt uncomfortable at work would be supported. But the feedback was clear: our staff needed formal assurance from us as their managers that they were safe to come forward. This kind of thing couldn’t be assumed.

Since then we’ve put together a sexual harassment policy and communicated it to all staff and incoming staff. Yes, I hope that it never has to be formally enforced, but I’m glad that it’s there. I’m also glad that the survey prompted us to raise the issue at all—yet another reminder that sometimes those of us in positions of power should talk less, and listen and read more.

This article first appeared in Books + Publishing.