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Over half of book-industry survey respondents report sexual harassment

Posted on: 19 January 2018

Just over half of all respondents to Books+Publishing’s recent survey on sexual harassment in the Australian book industry have reported being sexually harassed, and just over half of respondents also said they had witnessed sexually inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Books+Publishing received 213 responses to the survey. Of this number, 114 said they had been sexually harassed while working in the book industry; 101 of these identified as female, 11 as male and two as gender non-binary. 

The incidents reported encompassed a wide range of experiences, including leering, suggestive jokes, comments about physical appearance, intrusive questions about personal life, repeated unwanted advances, inappropriate touching and groping. One person reported being raped at a publisher’s sales conference. The perpetrators were often identified as men in positions of power, such as men in senior publishing roles and older male authors.

Incidents of sexual harassment were spread across numerous sectors in the book industry. Of special concern to IPEd is that by far the highest percentage – one quarter – of respondents who reported being sexually harassed said they were working in editorial at the time:

Writers’ festivals and book tours were highlighted as particularly fraught environments, where the boundary between professional and social interactions could be easily crossed and power differences exploited.

‘In my experience event settings are where harassment is most likely to occur,’ said one female editor. ‘Book publishing, as a social industry with lots of launches and public readings lends itself to these kinds of abuse with little accountability. One way forward is leadership at these events where the people responsible for the event/evening are known and present themselves as approachable and as allies.’

Reporting behaviour
Just 33% of women who experienced or witnessed sexual harassment said they reported the incidents. Male respondents were only slightly more likely to report their cases, with 42% stating they’d informed someone of the incident. Overall, 35% of people who said they either witnessed or experienced sexual harassment reported their incident. Reasons given for not wanting to report an incident included feelings of helplessness or humiliation, the lack of a reporting process or trustworthy channels, being in a culture that implicitly condoned such behaviour and, above all, fear of repercussions to the respondent’s professional prospects.

In many instances, the accused’s seniority or connections in the industry was a direct influence on whether an incident would go reported. One respondent recalled that ‘there was little point … the only person to report it to was the main perpetrator,’ and others were deterred by the knowledge that ‘you would have to continue to work with that person, knowing they knew you had reported them’.

The pervasive nature of sexual harassment caused many respondents to fear their experiences were ‘too small’ or too commonplace to report. ‘I didn’t know who to report the incident to, and was worried that I would be viewed as a troublemaker,’ said one editor. Others expressed similar fears of being seen by others as ‘overreacting’ or someone who ‘can’t take a joke’. ‘The one-off incidents don’t seem like a big deal,’ said one respondent, ‘it’s when you put them all together.’

One male respondent said he was uncomfortable reporting inappropriate comments to management because he ‘works in a predominantly female environment. As a result, I feel I have no one I can comfortably approach about sexual harassment,’ he said.

Where harassment was reported, consequences varied wildly. Some cases resulted in ‘swift and serious action’ and ‘proper training and counselling’, but many respondents also said their case was mishandled, if not dismissed altogether. One person said reporting the issue resulted in retaliatory bullying by the perpetrator. In several of the cases, harassment was treated as a ‘personal issue’ rather than a ‘workplace issue’, and elicited responses such as ‘he’s just like that’, ‘he didn’t mean it the way you took it’ or ‘don’t go out with him if you don’t want to’.

The majority of respondents (60%) said their companies had procedures in place to protect staff from sexual harassment, but some questioned the effectiveness of these policies. One respondent stated the processes left staff feeling ‘very uncared for and stressed afterwards’, while another felt that ‘in practice, the process continues to penalise and blame the victim’. A further 21% of respondents said there were no procedures in place, while 13% were unsure. Of the six percent who felt the question was not applicable to their work, many were freelancers.

Has the industry cleaned up its act?

Books+Publishing didn’t ask respondents when their experiences of sexual harassment took place; while a couple of respondents described an improved workplace environment compared to earlier in their careers, others related more contemporary experiences of sexual harassment.

‘Essentially the first five points in the [Australian Human Rights Commission] list were common in the 1980s and 1990s,’ said one respondent. Another said that the sexual harassment she experienced earlier in her career wouldn’t happen today. ‘Younger men in the industry are by and large much better behaved and more respectful,’ she said.

However, several respondents observed that sexual harassment was still pervasive in the book industry today. A key theme was the potential for the abuse of power in an industry dominated by women but where men are overrepresented in senior management. ‘It is rife. You would think it wouldn’t be, since it is a female-dominated industry, but the “heads” are still often male,’ said one freelance editor.

An editor for a large publisher observed: ‘This is an industry with older, established men in the corner offices and young women working themselves to the ground in the cubicles, trying to earn themselves a break; that is, an industry where sexual harassment based on power differentials is bound to flourish.’

Yet another respondent pointed out sexual harassment was inextricably linked to other forms of harassment. ‘Sexual harassment in publishing sits hand in hand with racial harassment and all the microaggressions that sit along the spectrum before an actual incident occurs,’ she said. ‘Publishing is such an overwhelmingly middle-class white industry, and although the vast majority of people I’ve worked with are women, it’s always men in the top positions of power. The power imbalance is responsible for so much of the harassment, ignorance and insensitivity that is rife in publishing houses.’

However, a few respondents who had worked in other sectors felt the publishing industry was ‘comparatively safe’. ‘Having worked in other industries I think publishing has stronger awareness of risks and generally good preventive measures compared to other industries,’ said one respondent in senior management. ‘But nowhere is immune from this risk and we all need to be aware of danger, promote good behaviour and have strong support for alleged victims and fair investigations.’

Next steps
Among the suggestions to promote a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment in the industry were calls for better training, clearer guidelines and greater education. Other suggestions included training staff, particularly senior staff, ‘in more sensitive and constructive responses to sexual harassment scenarios’, as well ‘holding people to account and professional development workshops on consent and communication’.

One publicist recommended promoting discussions between senior and junior staff in a more informal setting. ‘It might make a difference if senior staff had coffee with junior staff every now and then, and encouraged them to feel they will be heard if they ever report such incidents.’ She added, ‘If staff are armed with clearly stated management support and phrases like “No thanks, this situation is work for me so I won’t take you up on that”, they might find it easier to manage difficult authors. But it would obviously be far better if it wasn’t left to young women to manage the behaviour of sleazy authors in the first place!’

This is an edited version of Books+Publishing’s special bulletin on sexual harassment in the Australian book industry, published with permission. To read the full report you will need a current subscription to Books+Publishing
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