Diversity among the workforce is a major topic, and business leaders frequently discuss the practical challenges and benefits of making their organizations more diverse. There are many dimensions to address — race, gender/sex, age, background, skills, and attitudes all play into diversity. Some areas are off-limits (religion), some are hidden (experiences), while others are visible (race and sex). The visible ones tend to take priority as many companies want to appear diverse and “mirror the market,” a market which is always going to be more diverse than any small organizational segment relating to that market. But even the visible differences can lead to controversy, as a recent article in InsideHigherEd detailed, where Cornell students and administrators are debating exactly how a “black student” is defined.

head silhouettes

There is even a definition of diversity that embraces office design, purporting to use office spaces to spark different perspectives and attitudes, improve wellness, and increase productivity — all in the name of diversity.

The Scholarly Kitchen has been improving its diversity since its beginning. It was set up to reflect the community, with part of its mission listed as:

Attract the community of STM information experts interested in these things and give them a place to contribute.

If diversity is about mirroring your market, how diverse is scholarly publishing? It has expanded dramatically in the past two decades, with China entering the mainstream, consolidation driving outsourcing, and more remote employees with flexible schedules. In 2016, a paper in Learned Publishing examined our industry’s demographics, finding:

  • 90.79% of our industry identified as white
  • 63.64% were female, with this rate even higher in the younger cohorts
  • 50% of the men and 44% of the women held managerial positions

There are many nuggets to pull out of the paper. It’s worth a read. But to me and many others, diversity goes beyond the things measured in this survey.

As this blog’s founder, I’ve seen the goals for diversity here morph across what is nearly a decade now. Originally, the pressure for diversity related to getting a librarian to blog (role-based diversity). Once that was accomplished, the pressure shifted to finding a female blogger (gender/sex diversity). Then, it shifted to getting a blogger who represented the humanities (discipline-based diversity), and then a vendor (again, role-based diversity). Other areas we’ve tried to improve include age-, race-, and economy-based diversity — looking for younger contributors with different ethnic and geographic/economic perspectives.

However, these efforts don’t always translate into intellectual diversity. By the time someone is within our industry, they have been through a vetting process that homogenizes a great deal of thinking and experience — via editorial training and work, or management training, or scientific training, or information management (librarianship or bibliographic) training, or technology training, or some combination of these and more. There are also meta-issues (e.g., open access, economics, roles) that affect attitudes alone or in combination.

There are also personality preferences (daring vs. cautious, risk-tolerant vs. risk-averse, and so forth), as well as what seem to be intrinsic abilities certain people have, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, lateral thinking, and so forth. Hiring for these is critical to success, but those kinds of diversity won’t show up in a photograph.

Superficial similarities can mask deeper sources of diversity. It may stymie many readers if they were forced to guess who among the Chefs once lived as religious minorities or experienced life as racial minorities or political minorities. For any of these situations, you can’t tell by looking, and you also can’t know what attitudes these experiences changed or cemented. The opposite can also be true. I’m sure we’ve all known people who meet diversity perceptions (racial, gender, ethnic) but are mainstream in their thinking, education, family life, and attitudes. Some haven’t traveled much, and may even be considered sheltered and uninformed.

We also have to acknowledge there are parts of society this blog will likely never include — white nationalists, science deniers, palm readers, anti-vaxxers, creationists. Intellectual diversity has boundaries for most institutions. You won’t find a gun control advocate working at the National Rifle Association. You can’t do base-13 math in the accounting department.

We’re in tricky territory when the word “diversity” is intoned, and maybe chasing something that can’t be fully understood or described. It’s hard to pin down a definition.

So, we’re in tricky territory when the word “diversity” is intoned, and maybe chasing something that can’t be fully understood or described. Sometimes, it’s described as “acceptance” and “tolerance,” yet some things (belief in creationist origins or racial superiority) we would not accept in our community. Does that make us less than diverse? Certainly, but it also underscores that diversity is a community definition, not an absolute definition.

Diversity has temporal elements. One hundred years ago, if the same attitude about diversity had been in place, we might have been looking for Irish contributors to reflect immigration trends and help newcomers be more prominent. Sometime after 2065, when Caucasians are projected to become a minority in the US, they may be the diversity play for certain companies.

Diversity for appearance’s sake does nobody any favors. It has to go further. Whoever you hire, with diversity in mind or not, these employees have to be able to do the work, and be willing to do the work. These simple-sounding statements have implications for diversity initiatives.

For people to do the work you’ve hired them to do, they need to be given the authority and remit necessary, and sometimes the support to break down attitudes or silos that might keep them from achieving what you want them to achieve. For people who look different or have different backgrounds, subtle, undetected biases can set them back or undermine their work. Being aware of these and addressing them when necessary is important. This means “air support” (creating a culture where everyone knows you’re inclusive and aiming at high achievement for everyone who can contribute, no matter what they look or sound like) and “ground support” (potentially talking directly with people who have a hard time overcoming biases for whatever reason — human nature includes unrecognized biases as an unwelcome corollary function of our pattern recognition wetware).

This also means not allowing double-standards to creep into the workplace, where those who might appear to belong to Team Diversity are treated with kid gloves while those who might appear to be on Team Mainstream are treated like a regular employee would expect to be treated. As I mentioned above, diversity of thinking, background, and experience can make members of Team Mainstream surprisingly diverse, even if they look typical. At the same time, for members of Team Diversity to rise through the ranks and reach their full potential — director-level, CEO, or more — they and the organization will benefit the most if they do that effectively and completely.

Global firms also deal with other elements of our diverse world, such as different languages, laws, and currencies. The lingua franca of business may be English, but try conducting a focus group in France with that expectation. If a non-English market is important, you will need people with language skills, no matter what they look like. You may need lawyers and financial experts who know laws that aren’t specific to where your headquarters is located. Cultural norms can also be tricky, too, as there are subtle ways businesses earn trust in other markets, ways that are different from how it’s done in the US or western Europe.

All in all, diversity is a good lens through which to look at the world. You and your organization can learn and gain a lot through its kaleidoscope. Diversity is also complicated and hard to define at some levels — attitudes, experiences, and backgrounds aren’t all visible with the naked eye. You need to look more deeply at candidates, analyze how they think and how that fits with your culture, train managers to balance business needs with individual mentoring, protect and preserve inclusiveness, and so much more. Humans are complicated, and we can be our own worst enemies.

Finally, it’s worth underscoring that diversity is contextual. What is a strength in some situations can be a weakness in others, no matter who it is. We’ve all experienced this — when a male presence helps, when a female presence works better, when someone comfortable with conflict is needed, when a team needs a leader comfortable with risk, or when someone who has lived overseas can contribute more. Because contexts shift, an organization that is diverse — in attitude, appearance, age, gender, experience, skill, and temperament, to name a few — will be more adaptable. That’s to me the ultimate upside of increased diversity — increased resilience.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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Discussion

12 Thoughts on "Defining Moment — What Do We Mean When We Say “Diversity”?"

Another wonderful catalog of insights, Kent. Diversity within organizations enriches and informs us all,
as you say. A question: will LGBTQ diversity ever be covered in “The Scholarly Kitchen” or is it largely
irrelevant? The number of articles on LGBTQ publishing in general are scant; discussions of LGBTQ scholarly publishing seem non-existent. Possibly members of the scholarly publishing community are so sophisticated
and broad-minded that LGBTQ members are part and parcel of our numbers. Comments on this
from any perspective would be deeply appreciated.

We are always open to guest posts, so if you (or anyone else) is interested in putting something together, please contact us at scholarlykitchen at sspnet.org

Agree with a lot of what you say, Kent. I like the shift you make from “diversity” to “inclusivity” and I like what you sketch out in terms of “air support” and “ground support”. I’m still oscillating about the kid gloves bit. My reaction to that is similar to how I feel about quotas. I used to think they were a bad idea: hiring / promoting on anything other than merit sets people up to fail and undermines the goals of diversity initiatives. But as I’ve come into contact with more people in more senior roles, I see there are plenty of weak / underqualified people in senior roles already, who may have got there through privilege rather than merit. So I’ve come to think that forcibly levelling the playing field is not such a bad idea after all; only when the playing field is level can minorities actually have the chance to compete on merit. In that context, while I agree that ultimately you need people to do the job they’re hired to do, I think it’s important that we recognise that some people are coming from more disadvantaged positions and will need more support, more tolerance, more guidance, more forgiveness, more mentoring (etc / whatever) to achieve that. And only by proactively offering this “special treatment” can we consider ourselves to be really embracing inclusivity / diversity. If we insist on treating everyone the same, we’re just persisting with privileging those who fit the status quo, however noble our intentions.

This editorial was a poor decision. It provides no insight into how/if Scholarly Kitchen, or SSP, is addressing the fact that publishing is overwhelming white (and etc.). Instead, it brings up the same old argument we’ve heard thousands of times by opponents of Affirmative Action. It ignores the fact that those in power (as noted above, typically white men), decide what we “value” in work, in society, and in culture. I would appreciate a follow-up editorial that digs deeper into the structural inequities that publishers (small and large) perpetuate.

A few clarifications. The Scholarly Kitchen is an independent blog consisting of independent contributors. It is not a mouthpiece for SSP, and we aren’t in the habit of talking about SSP initiatives. That said, SSP has a long history of increasing inclusion with its Travel Grants awards, outreach to younger professionals, regional events, and more. If anything, the pace and scope of these activities have increased over the years, if my view into the organization is correct (as a past-President, I don’t know as much about what’s going on, but the outlines of initiatives are more recognizable). As for the Scholarly Kitchen, I think I explained the history of how diversity has factored in, and how it still factors in.

This post is not in opposition to affirmative action at all. I don’t know where you get that idea (nor do I understand the construct that this post was “a decision” — it is an essay, not a decision).

I think this comment hits on one of the areas we need to think harder about — judging people by their external features. Whether you dismiss someone as white and male or via any other superficial stereotypes, you risk a grave misunderstanding of who they are really, what they can contribute, and how they can make a team or organization stronger.

Thank you, Kent, for this article. As an expat from the East working in a very White publishing house, I see the problem as being more about “ethnocentricity”. Ethnocentricity breeds non-diverse behavior. STM wants to mine content from the East, sell it back at exhorbitent Prices, but don’t make any Easterners part of the decision-making process. The last time someone did the same was with the cotton farming in India during the colonial times, and I see the same happening in STM.
We need a Science Gandhi!

So despite the statement about STM community diversity — where are the black and asian members of the Kitchen? Which of the contributors is disabled? I cannot tell about Lettie Conrad from her image, but all other members appear to be caucasian.

I wish I had an answer for you (and to “Frequent Reader” above) outlining how we have solved this seemingly intractable problem and provided a shining example for all of mankind to follow. But it is a work in progress. We’ve addressed a lot of the disparities here that were fairly evident and not that difficult to fix (as described in the post above), essentially a lot of the low-hanging fruit. We continue to try to do better, and continue to try to recruit new authors.

One issue we face is that there is only a very small population of people willing to do this sort of volunteer work — writing here is unpaid, and we require a frequent level of posts from each author. This means not only a commitment to doing constant, extra, unpaid work, but also in my experience, there just aren’t that many people who enjoy regularly writing pieces of the form that we publish here (many are happier with shorter form public statements, like Twitter or leaving comments). Further, we require our authors to state opinions publicly, something that is also rare in our industry, where as one of our bloggers put it, “the thing scholarly publishers do best is fly below the radar.” No one wants to say anything publicly that might upset others so we are adding authors from a fairly small pool within the industry.

So with those limitations, we’re doing what we can. We encourage guest posts from those unwilling to commit to a regular schedule, and our roster of guest posters has added to our diversity. We’re also working on a scheme to bring in a lot more early career voices to the blog, so stay tuned. We recently added a blogger from INASP, who can offer us better reach into the Global South, and part of her charge is to help us recruit posts from parts of the world those of us based in the US and Europe don’t often see.

But if you have suggestions of other ways we can do better, we would love to hear them.

Why not take the initiative and ask publishers to report their employee diversity numbers? Why not ask publishers to report the stats on promotions given to different sets of people? In a globalized world, diversity is not just between men and women, but it’s between people. Why cant Scholarly Kitchen become a force for change? We have enough people writing, now we need action! Where is the STM employees lobby group?

David, I love the Kitchen and the value you all add to the Publishers, increasing understanding and industry awareness as well as the overall publishing experience. I fully understand and appreciate that you do your best to achieve the right goals. I really do not think you deserve the criticism but looking at the profile pictures does incite a response such as my own. I also appreciate that people have to be willing to stand up and be counted and not everyone can or is able to find the time to write for such a blog. However, if people could contribute just a few (two?) articles per annum, you might find more minorities willing to contribute (perhaps under a guest spot) and you could potentially increase your membership of knowledgeable individuals?

I feel much the same way — better because our roster is no longer a bunch of pictures of middle-aged white guys, but still unhappy because while we’ve done a better job on some of the gender and other issues, there’s more that could be accomplished. As noted in my comment above, we very much welcome guest posts, seek them out, and offer support from our current writers in helping them get put together. We’ve added a blogger specifically to reach out to the Global South to do just this.

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