Last week, I co-facilitated a workshop on the topic of diversity at the Researcher to Reader conference in London. I have to confess, I was a little reluctant to do it at first, but I’m very glad that I did.
An unmet need
Last year, I put a lot of thought into how actively I want to, or should engage in discussions on diversity. On the one hand, the irony of writing posts and co-organizing workshops about diversity as a person of my particular demographic status does not escape me, despite this post’s rather facetious title. As the response to the previous ‘Ask the Chefs’ post on diversity shows, if a group talking about diversity, no matter how well-meaning, aren’t diverse themselves, then we run the risk of appearing self-serving.
On the other hand, why should it fall on the shoulders of the underrepresented to ensure that their voices are heard and their persons are respected? Especially when, as my colleague Betsy Donohue explained in her recent post, finding your voice is much harder for members of some groups than for others. If the Kitchen and the Chefs do have a leadership role in the publishing community (a concept which makes more than one of us slightly uncomfortable), then we do have a moral obligation to wield that privilege for the betterment of our community. This is especially true if we can increase the diversity of people who have a voice by doing so.
Last year, when I was planning the STM association Future of Publishing seminar, I bit the bullet and put together a panel on diversity and resilience in scholarly publishing. I didn’t want to put it at the end of the program because I didn’t want it seen as an after-thought, so I placed it up front as the keynote panel. At the time, it felt like a gamble, but the shift in attitudes towards the LGBT community over the last decade, what seems like a very recent willingness for society to think and talk about issues around gender identity, and of course #metoo, it seemed like there was a window of opportunity to make real progress on diversity.
Boy, was I right about that! For the panel, I recruited Nancy Roberts of Business Inclusivity, who became my co-organizer for the R2R workshop, to explain how she works with businesses to help them become more diverse. My colleague from Holtzbrinck, Isabel Thompson then explained why it makes business sense to be diverse. Between the two talks, they showed how diversity leads to differing perspectives, which lead to more options, and to better decision making. The result is a greater ability to adapt to a changing market. Finally, Michiel Kolman told the story of Elsevier Pride and how Elsevier fosters inclusion by making sure that everybody feels welcome.
The story that we told was great. I was expecting it to be. What surprised me was the audience reaction. Without setting out deliberately to do so, we managed to create a safe space in that meeting room and people started talking. There was legitimate anger that needed a place to be expressed and validated, and empathy for those who felt excluded. In the break that followed, a person that I know in their role as a customer confided in me how he used to feel anxious when mentioning his husband to people for the first time. Even then, I noticed him pause slightly before the word ‘husband’ and break eye contact.
It is not acceptable that people are conditioned to feel that way and something has to be done.
Safe spaces get a bad rap
The concept of the safe space has a somewhat mixed reputation. Notable, certain white, middle-aged, British comedians seem to have an objection to them, see Stephen Fry and John Cleese. To be fair, there is an argument here about the limits of free speech and the ability to engage effectively with and refute opinions that you find personally offensive. After all, if we can’t bear to argue, we’ll never learn the rhetorical skills necessary to move opinions forward. Judith Shulevitz ably deconstructed these arguments and distinguished between enforced and mutually agreed safe spaces in this 2015 New York Times article.
It’s the mutually-agreed safe spaces that we need for this type of discussion. A place where people can’t be discriminatory but can discuss how discrimination happens without fear of being ostracized for saying the wrong thing. As Patrycja Przybylak, Managing Director of LGBT professional membership organization Out-Standing said to me during a research call before the workshop Many people are afraid to engage in this conversation because they’re scared of making a mistake. This rings true to me. I’ve spoken to more than one straight, white, middle-aged man who steers clear of this discussion out of a fear they’ll make an unintended blunder, or be misinterpreted.
This fear may be unwarranted, but there are good people who could contribute to the conversation in meaningful ways that are currently absenting themselves. So in my mind, this goes both ways. We need to reassure people of all demographics that they are welcome both in the workplace and in this conversation.
It was that sense that I wanted us to recreate last week in the workshop. I think we did a pretty good job. We managed to create an atmosphere where people were comfortable discussing what they’ve learned in their personal experiences and were learning in the workshop.
Using personas to understand our the biases inherent in scholarly communication
Nancy started the workshop off with an empathy exercise to help us think about the times when each of us has felt excluded, and to give us a sense of just how often many people feel disadvantaged, voiceless, or uncomfortable. Having set the tone, we moved onto a series of exercises over the three one-hour sessions that included personas of underrepresented groups and journey maps that exposed barriers to entry and advancement.
We wrapped the last session up with a series of key points that we’re planning to make the basis of a document; a manifesto, if you will, that a few of the workshop attendees have agreed to co-author.
In the next post on this, Nancy will explore what we did in greater depth and report on some of the things that we learned. She’ll write about how many communities simply haven’t heard of what we do and have no way of finding out. No matter how talented they may be, we’re not going to meet those people unless we find ways to reach out. She’ll also explain how privilege, or the lack of it, affects how people are valued, how much they’re paid and whether they advance in their careers. These effects are often not related to how much value an individual can provide to a business, and so it is in our collective interests to reach out to people, to champion them and to support their development.