Sexual Harassment

Following the public awareness raised by the #MeToo movement, which drew attention to the workplace harassment endemic in Hollywood, the publishing industry has become notorious for its own widespread cultures of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Just as stories of some of Hollywood’s most rampant abusers became part of the public consciousness, so too has the publishing world been beset by its own grisly tales of sexual misconduct. While there have only been a small number of high-profile dismissals and resignations, there has been an outpouring of anecdotal accounts from women who work in the industry, and an abundance of surveys published by trade news organizations that prove the prevalence of this issue. 

While sexual harassment is not unique to cultural industries such as publishing, it does seem that this form of sexual discrimination is inordinately common in the publishing trade. According to a survey conducted by Insights on Canadian Society in 2018, roughly 4% of women reported being sexually harassed at work.1* As this chapter will discuss, rates of sexual harassment in the publishing industry are between five and ten times higher, which suggests that there is a serious lack of gender equity in the book business.

sexual harassment in publishing

american publishing.

A 2017 Publishers Weekly article titled “The Women of Publishing Say #MeToo” explored this topic at some length. What they found was that a number of women working in the American book publishing industry regularly encountered a broad spectrum of sexual harassment in the workplace.2 This behaviour ranged from inappropriate jokes and suggestive comments to physical assaults such as groping and attempted rape. One woman remarked that the amount of assault and harassment that she was subjected to at her job working in the publishing industry was far worse than anything she had experienced working in Hollywood.3

Publishers Weekly again looked at this issue via an industry survey in 2018; 22% of women who responded to the survey had been sexually harassed while working, despite sexual harassment policies being in place at the companies where they worked.4

british publishing.

Examinations of the issue overseas returned even more staggering rates of sexual harassment: The Bookseller’s 2017 industry survey found that 54% of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment from their male colleagues while working in the book publishing industry.5 It’s significant to note that, whereas the Publishers Weekly 2018 survey looked at the issue as part of their annual jobs and salary survey, The Bookseller survey focused exclusively on sexual harassment, introducing the possibility of self-selected respondents. The Bookseller’s sample size was also much smaller (388 respondents in total vs. 664 total respondents in Publishers Weekly.) The take-home message, however, is clear: sexual harassment is a very real problem for women in the publishing industry. 

The Bookseller’s 2017 article, “Sexual Harassment Reported by Over Half in Trade Survey” included personal accounts from a number of women working in the book publishing industry—women who had been groped, propositioned, kissed, or raped while working or at work-related events, by colleagues or superiors.6 A number of women also commented that, while they had not experienced such extreme physical assault, they were exhausted by a culture of sexism in the office. This “white noise of daily harassment,” as it was articulated by one respondent, was a contributing factor for some women who did not report what had happened to them to HR or their superiors.

canadian publishing.

In Canada, the situation seems much the same. A 2019 Quill & Quire survey on sexual harassment found that 53.5% of respondents had been sexually harassed in the workplace; 86% of these respondents were women, and 2% of these respondents were trans, nonbinary, or gender fluid.7

The results of these surveys, together with numerous firsthand accounts in trade publications, comment sections, and personal blogs indicate that the publishing industry is indeed rife with sexual harassment—but why is this? Recall that roughly 4% of Canadian women reported being sexually harassed at work, meaning that women working in publishing are five to ten times more likely to experience sexual harassment. What could account for this expontentially larger risk?

theorizing the causes of sexual harassment in publishing

There are a number of theories to explain the prevalence of sexually predatory behaviour in publishing: some of the more compelling are the social nature of the industry, the exploitative nature of creative sector work, and, perhaps most significantly, the generally patriarchal structure of the publishing industry. 

publishing as a social industry.

Publishing is a notoriously social industry—in addition to the gatherings that often accompany book launches, there are readings, festivals, trade shows, and conferences. Participating in these social events is considered by many to be an essential part of advancing professionally in the industry. According to a Publishers Weekly article, “success is really tied to who you know. Those looking to get ahead need to make connections outside of their nine-to-five jobs.”8

That publishing is such a community-based industry is a unique, often celebrated aspect of the trade. The other side of this coin, however, is that these social-professional spaces can blur the lines of what is acceptable professional conduct. Furthermore, there is little accountability and even less hr oversight in these public spaces where work is often being done. According to surveys conducted by both Publishers Weekly and The Bookseller, a majority of women felt that the social aspect of the industry put them in particularly vulnerable situations.9 In fact, according to Publishers Weekly, social spaces in the industry such as conventions, book fairs, and after-hours events accounted for 66% of sexual harassment experienced by women.10 In the Quill & Quire survey, this number was closer to 38%,11 although due to inconsistencies in the data that was collected and reported, these surveys do not allow for direct comparison.

While publishing’s social spaces are especially problematic, publishing offices do not appear to be much safer for women. According to Publishers Weekly, as much as 55% of sexual harassment occurred in the office;12 the Quill & Quire survey put this number at 36.4%,13 which was almost as much as responses for “book launch or after-hours event” and “conference, trade show, and offsite meeting” combined. 

One possible explanation for the amount of sexual harassment that takes place within publishing offices, where the expectations for professional conduct should be unambiguous, and where there should be clear hr oversight, is the effect that these integral social spaces have on work spaces. Indeed, it could be that, because the industry is “structured around social get-togethers,”14 the relaxed rules of social environments have permeated publishing workplaces, creating what some have called a generally permissive culture, one where “anything goes”.15

a culture of silence.

Publishing scholars Claire Squires and Beth Driscoll suggest that a “culture of silence”16 is part of the problem. As they explain in “The Sleaze-O-Meter: Sexual Harassment in the Publishing Industry,” “jobs in publishing are scarce and attractive, a common feature of creative industries which correlates with exploitative work practices.” Essentially, the small size and general precarity of the publishing business results in limited growth, meaning limited job openings, which may put pressure on a person to tolerate a hostile work environment. In a “small and fairly closed industry,”17 it is easy to see how this complaisance could create the impression that such behaviour was acceptable. Indeed, one publicist, responding to a survey focusing on sexual harassment in the children’s book industry, said that she did not report the predatory behaviour of a coworker because it was “kind of an open secret.” She said that it made her “think twice about reporting things because [she found] his behaviour to be rather obvious,” so she didn’t understand why the behaviour hadn’t already been addressed.18

Furthermore, it seems that when women do come forward to report sexual harassment, the situation is rarely resolved satisfactorily. According to Quill & Quire’s 2019 survey, 82.5% of respondents who had reported being sexually harassed said that they were not satisfied with how their complaint was handled. This failure to respond appropriately to reports of sexual harassment contributes to a permissive environment by failing to correct predatory behaviour, but also, it stands to reason that women would be less likely to report harassment if they didn’t believe it would be properly addressed.  

vertical sex segregation.

A third possible explanation for why sexual harassment is so prevalent in the publishing industry, in addition to the social nature of the business and a reputed permissive culture, is the patriarchal structure of the industry. Multiple studies have shown that sexual harassment tends to be more common in male-dominated hierarchies, and, in particular, where there are extreme power differentials. New America refers to this as “vertical sex segregation”19— where, although a work force may be comprised predominantly of women, men are more likely to hold supervisory and executive roles that are associated with higher wages and higher status. Publishing is a prime example of one of these “pink collar” industries. In the words of Women in Publishing: women number twice as many, but are half as powerful. 

this is not about sex

Masha Gessen, a journalist writing for The New Yorker in November 2017 (at the height of #MeToo media coverage), cautioned against what she called reactions of “misplaced scale.”20 Essentially, Gessen argued that there have been outsized reactions to reports of sexual harassment because we as a society are misplacing our panic. Instead of addressing climate change, for instance, which is a complicated and unwieldy problem, Gessen argues that we have turned to policing sex, resulting in what she considers a sex panic. Writing about one instance of a senior New York Times reporter being suspended for sexually inappropriate behaviour toward junior journalists, Gessen writes, “It is hard to imagine a non-sexual example of non-work-related behavior that would get a reporter preemptively suspended in the absence of any crime or misdemeanor.” Gessen’s concern is that, in addition to causing overreactions to sexual harassment, this sex panic also infantilizes women and strips them of their sexual agency. 

what the law says.

What this position fails to recognize, however, is that the issue of workplace sexual harassment isn’t about sex—not really. Canadian law is clear that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. In 1989, The Supreme Court of Canada defined workplace sexual harassment as: 

Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to adverse job‑related consequences for the victims of the harassment … sexual harassment in the workplace attacks the dignity and self‑respect of the victim both as an employee and as a human being. 

Janzen v. Platy Enterprises Ltd., [1989] 1 S.C.R. 1252 (Can.).

In light of this definition, it’s clear that sexual harassment is actually about the dehumanizing sexual objectification of a person. Sexual agency, in fact, has nothing to do with it—it’s about a woman’s right to exist as a whole person, especially in a professional sphere, in a manner that is dictated by her performance, expertise, ambition, etc.—not her sexual identity.

As Rebecca Traister explains in an article for The Cut, this is about a woman’s right to exist in the world, and particularly in the workplace, as a professional human being instead of a sex object. As Traister articulates, the harm inflicted by sexual harassment is due to the “systemic disadvantaging of a gender in the public and professional sphere.”21 She goes on to explain how the trauma inflicted upon the sexually harassed, even in the absence of explicitly sexual or even physical abuse, is demeaning and dehumanizing; it sends the message that “their worth has been understood as fundamentally erotic, ornamental; … they have not been taken seriously as equals.” In short, she says, it’s a “cruel reminder that these are still the terms on which we are valued.”22 Clearly, sexual harassment should not be tolerated in our workplaces because it is a fundamental denial of gender equity; this is not a sex panic.

what we don’t know

When it comes to sexual harassment in Canadian publishing, we don’t know how race or ability status impacts a woman’s vulnerability. Furthermore, we don’t know how vulnerable LGBTQ+ folks in our industry are to sexual harassment. According to Quill & Quire’s 2019 survey, 2% of those who reported harassment identified as trans, non-binary, or gender-fluid23—but grouping respondents in this way erases the experience of trans men and women, who may be experiencing sexual harassment at different rates from their non-binary and gender fluid colleagues. Additionally, until we have accurate data capturing how many Canadian publishing professionals identify as trans, non-binary, and gender-fluid, we won’t be able to understand how their gender identity may impact their vulnerability to sexual harassment.

There is also work to be done exploring higher incidences of sexual harassment in different branches of the publishing industry. Quill & Quire’s survey on sexual harassment found that those working in sales and marketing, editorial, and publicty were most likely to be sexually harassed, while design and production were significantly less likely to be victimized.24 It could be that, as Sue Carter suggests, the relationship management and social networking aspect of these jobs make women particularly vulnerable.25 Power imbalances in caretaking roles may also partially explain why sexual harassment is more common in certain areas of the publishing industry. The “author as star” dynamic, for example, may make publicists particularly vulnerable.26 These are only a few possible explanations; understanding the nuances of how sexual harassment proliferates in different areas of the Canadian publishing industry is a topic that deserves in-depth study, which is beyond the scope of this report.  

the consequences of sexual harassment

Unsurprisingly, respondents to surveys conducted by Publishers Weekly, The Bookseller, and Quill & Quire all spoke about the negative toll that being sexually harassed took on their health, well-being, and performance at work. One woman, speaking to The Bookseller said that her experience was “deeply upsetting and humiliating.”27 Another, speaking to Quill & Quire, remarked that “After 40 years in this business, I can only imagine what my career would have been without harassment.”28 Indeed, according to Insights on Canadian Society, there is a high correlation between sexual harassment and low job satisfaction, low motivation, increased stress levels, decreased mental health, and decreased general health.29 This correlation suggests that sexual harassment may also be a contributing factor to other facets of gender inequity present in the publishing industry—specifically, the connection between sexual harassment and a decline in professional performance strongly suggests that publishing’s pervasive culture of sexual harassment may complicate professional advancement for women working in the industry.


endnotes

  1. Darcy Hango and Melissa Moyser, “Harassment in Canadian workplaces,” Insights on Canadian Society, December 17, 2018.
  2. Rachel Deahl, John Maher, and Jim Milliot, “The Women of Publishing Say #MeToo,” Publishers Weekly, October 9, 2017.
  3. Deahl, Maher, and Milliot. “The Women of Publishing Say #MeToo”.
  4. Jim Milliot, “One in Five Book Biz Women Surveyed Reports Sexual Harassment,” Publishers Weekly, August 3, 2018.
  5. Bookseller news team, “Sexual Harassment Reported by Over Half in Trade Survey,” The Bookseller, November 10, 2017.
  6. Bookseller, “Sexual Harassment Reported”. 
  7. Sue Carter, “Q&Q’s Sexual-Harassment Survey: The Results,” Quill & Quire, April 22, 2019.
  8. Deahl, Maher, and Milliot, “The Women of Publishing Say #MeToo”.
  9. Ibid.; Bookseller, “Sexual Harassment Reported”. 
  10. Milliot, “One in Five”.
  11. Carter, “Q&Q’s Sexual-Harassment Survey”.
  12. Milliot, “One in Five”.
  13. Carter, “Q&Q’s Sexual-Harassment Survey”.
  14. Bookseller, “Sexual Harassment Reported”. 
  15. Deahl, Maher, and Milliot, “The Women of Publishing Say #MeToo”.
  16. Claire Squires and Beth Driscoll, “The Sleaze-O-Meter: Sexual Harassment in the Publishing Industry,” Interscript Journal, March 8, 2018.
  17. Squires and Driscoll, “The Sleaze-O-Meter”.
  18. Anne Ursu, “Sexual Harassment in the Children’s Book Industry,” Medium, February 7, 2018.
  19. Alieza Durana et. al, “Sexual Harassment: A Severe and Pervasive Problem: What Drives This Unwanted, Costly, and Damaging Behavior Across Industry Sectors by Wage and Gender,” New America, October 10, 2018.
  20. Masha Gessen, “Sex, Consent, and the Dangers of ‘Misplaced Scale’,” The New Yorker, November 27, 2017.
  21. Janzen v. Platy Enterprises Ltd., [1989] 1 S.C.R.  1252 (Can.).
  22. Rebecca Traister, “This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work,” The Cut, December 10, 2017.
  23. Traister, “This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex”.
  24. Carter, “Q&Q’s Sexual-Harassment Survey”.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Over Half of Book-Industry Survey Respondents Report Sexual Harassment,” Books+Publishing, December 12, 2017.
  28. Bookseller, “Sexual Harassment Reported”. 
  29. Carter, “Q&Q’s Sexual-Harassment Survey”.
  30. Hango and Moyser, “Harassment in Canadian workplaces”.
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