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#InConversationWith: Michiel Kolman (IPA)

Portrait featuring Dr. Michiel Kolman, Senior VP of Information Industry Relations and Academic Ambassador at Elsevier.

We asked Michiel Kolman to share his experience and ideas about diversity and inclusion in the publishing sector. Kolman is Senior Vice President at the Dutch publishing house Elsevier and former President of the International Publishers Association (IPA), where he continues to serve as chair of the Inclusive Publishing and Literacy committee. He was also Presidential Envoy of Diversity and Inclusion in 2019 and 2020. We are eager to share his insightful perspectives with you.

How have you been working on diversity and inclusion? What motivates your efforts at the IPA?

When I was president of the IPA, I put diversity and inclusion (D&I) onto the agenda. When my term was up, my successor, Hugo Setzer, appointed me as the IPA’s presidential envoy for D&I in the publishing industry. Fortunately we were not starting from scratch. Many publishing houses had already established themselves in the D&I arena and several IPA members, most notably the UK Publishers Association (the PA) had made great inroads in this respect.

I’m very happy that the IPA leadership has been more diverse than ever of late, with an Asian president, an out-and-proud president who is part of the LGBTQI+ community, a female president from the Middle East and a future female president from Latin America. At the IPA we strive for gender and geographic balance in all positions and committees.

Which were the most important lines for the IPA to take in order to contribute to a more inclusive publishing sector?

First and most important has been simply to have the conversation. The IPA started a blog on D&I and put D&I on the agenda at its meetings, while Bodour Al Qasimi launched PublisHER, a platform dedicated to female leadership in our industry.

Individual IPA members have been very active in this area. The Publishers Association in the UK launched a five-year programme that covered annual monitoring of progress, clear diversity goals in the workplace, awards, learning and training, etc. The IPA focused on sharing best practice. We also sent out a questionnaire to the members and followed up with short interviews. Key take-aways were that every IPA member had a D&I story to tell (even if they didn’t realize it), there was a wide variety of views on how important D&I is and how it is ‘competing’ with other priorities, and there is more of a focus on D&I in the workforce than on D&I in what we publish. Gender was the most prominent diversity lens, but race and ethnicity, age and LGBTQI+ were also on the radar.

As you mention in your articles, the publishing industry needs to pay attention to diversity and inclusion on different levels: within the workforce, with regard to the content that is offered and with regard to authorship. What can publishers do to bring new and more representative voices into the field?

If we want to publish diverse books we need diverse authors, and in order to attract diverse authors, we need diversity in our publishing houses and publishing organizations. What we publish and who publishes it are closely connected. You can’t expect a publisher working with a majority of straight white women to be able to publish books that will resonate with a Black audience and with LGBTQI+ readers. (I’m exaggerating a bit to get the point across.)

If you want to address D&I, the first step is to create an inclusive organization where everyone can be themselves and achieve their full potential. At Elsevier we have rolled out Inclusive Leadership and Psychological Safety programmes which were highly effective. Once the working culture is more inclusive, you can put diverse talent hiring and retention on the agenda. Publishing houses that are inclusive and diverse will attract more talent, especially if their efforts are recognized through external benchmarks or independent evaluations. Prospective hires look at organizations like Comparably and Glassdoor to evaluate how companies align on their values and purpose.

In parallel, I am a great supporter of raising awareness of what we publish, for example by celebrating diverse voices through awards, dedicated programmes and financial support.

You write on your blog that both the British and the American publishing industries are making progress in the D&I of their workforce. How do you think they have achieved this progress?

First, the UK and the US stand out because for those countries we have a great deal of data going back several years on diversity in our industry. I would love to have similar data for other countries and be able to build a truly international perspective on diversity in publishing at a global level, but that is not possible as yet. Of course I’m aware of the fact that in gathering data, you have to balance privacy with the importance of data registration across all types of diversity.

Second, I recall a conversation I had with a leading British publisher who said, ‘We cannot afford not to have a strong and active D&I programme, otherwise we will not succeed in hiring and retaining the talent we need.’

I have seen publishing houses putting D&I on the agenda in a systematic way. They hired dedicated D&I staff, formulated a strategy and executed it. They communicated internally and externally about the strategic importance of this approach. They empowered Employee Resource Groups linked to the different D&I lenses, and gave them a budget. Finally, they had strong, outspoken support from the top. To be successful at D&I, you have to fire on all cylinders at the same time and do so in a sustained way over many years.

Is there one specific D&I lens (gender, race, sexual identity, disability, etc) that is likely to present the greatest challenges for the publishing industry?

The UK PA now has data on diversity in the UK publishing industry going back many years and it tells an interesting story: the workforce is more female than male, the leadership has reached gender parity, and the LGBTQI+ community is well represented (even though they are more likely to come out to their immediate colleagues than to their managers). But the race lens on diversity is clearly where most challenges are. This has been known for years, but dedicated programmes have not really rectified the situation. Even if Black talent is hired, through internship programmes for example, Black interns are less likely to stay in their publishing house than other staff. I think it is fair to say that the inclusive working environment doesn’t extend to Black employees.

How will the IPA keep working towards a more diverse and inclusive publishing industry?

D&I now has an official home at the IPA in the Inclusive Publishing and Literacy committee, which I chair. In parallel, the PublisHER initiative is going from strength to strength, and we keep D&I on the agenda through our blogs (there was a recent blog on Every Story Matters), as we will at the upcoming IPA Congress in Jakarta next year. Our members are increasingly embracing D&I, and the UK PA and the American Association of Publishers are really in the vanguard here. At the IPA we are playing our part in exchanging best practice and helping all our members become and remain active in this area.

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