BLOG: LBF 19 – Ageism in Publishing

There has been ongoing talk about diversity in publishing across social media and industry, from women in management to social and ethnic diversity. The latest is ageism which, as someone who transferred to publishing after working for several years elsewhere, hit rather close to home. Unfortunately I missed the start of the panel at London Book Fair (restricted by off-peak train times and then getting mildly lost on my way to the Olympia eating up the buffer I had included in my travel timetable), but I arrived in time for the question-and-answer portion of the panel.

Some of the panel was focused on career progression – how to keep your career moving when you are being overtaken by new entrants into the industry. They discussed keeping your career goals in your mind, and working towards them, as well as taking advantage of mentorship opportunities and also seeking them out. Publishing, they emphasised, is a supportive industry and people are always willing to help. Networking at events and online can be a great way to build relationships and find a mentor, and it’s important to remember that a mentor does not have to be older than you.

The panelists also advised not to internalise ageism – some people may feel they are too old to change their career direction, but that’s not the case! If you keep your experience relevant and stay up-to-date with innovations and trends, there is no reason that you can’t keep your career progressing and changing.

Where my interest was piqued was the question about ageism in entry-level roles – in particular, the need for direct experience either through work experience or internship schemes, which are usually unpaid and are not something which can easily be undertaken by someone who has already been in work and has other financial responsibilities (bills, family expenses, living alone rather than with parents or housemates). Whilst noting that hidden salaries can prevent people already in work from moving into the industry (another point in favour of Book Job Transparency), the panel offered the answer I have heard a lot – experience in publishing is not a required criteria for entry level roles, and they would strongly recommend that people from other industries apply and highlight their transferable skills. People with work experience outside of publishing were integral to bringing fresh ideas into the industry. It was also emphasised to apply for jobs which might specify they are looking for a graduate – to consider what the employer means when they say they want a graduate, and what you are able to offer with your own experience.

However, whilst direct experience might not be a shortlisting criteria, in my experience it was often used as a criteria when deciding between two equally capable candidates. In a number of the jobs I interviewed for, where I was successful in reaching a final interview, the feedback was almost entirely “we knew you could do the job, but another candidate had direct experience”. Only once was the feedback “you could definitely have done the job, but we felt that you weren’t quite as passionate about the subject as the other candidate”, which was extremely fair feedback and I appreciated their honesty.

This is not to say the feedback about direct experience wasn’t honest, but I wish to draw attention to the fact that many publishers (and I applied for a LOT of jobs) may use the direct experience as a hidden decision-making criteria during the hiring process. It is not required for the role per the job advert, however this is disingenuous when it is used to choose between otherwise equally qualified candidates.

When I raised this as a question at the panel, I was a little disappointed by the responses I got. General consensus was that experience was not required, and no discussion of how to make sure it was not used as an appointing criteria in entry-level roles, but further to that a comment was made about work experience schemes being open to older applicants as well. This did not answer the question, and also showed a lack of consideration of the financial restrictions that might prevent someone other than a graduate being able to undertake work experience programmes. Not to mention the competition for these places with graduates, for whom many of these schemes are designed.

This use of direct experience to differentiate at appointment stage presents a hidden barrier to applicants who are told they are welcome, and needs to be acknowledged before any work can be done to overcome it. I do wonder if my final job offer was because I applied through an agency who were able to advocate on my behalf, or because the publisher was based outside of London and needed to take risks on staff from non-publishing backgrounds otherwise it would be very short of staff. It is one thing for a publishing company to say they want people with different experience, and that they value transferable skills, but if they give feedback to unsuccessful candidates using the phrase “someone else had more direct experience”, then they clearly value direct experience more, and are not being explicit with this from the outset.

The issue as well is that, if direct experience is not being used as a formal criteria, but is something which weights a final decision, there may not be data demonstrating how regularly this occurs, and how pervasive this problem is. I would be interested in seeing how many candidates have received feedback about not having enough direct experience, and comparing the selection criteria for the roles they have applied for. Unless figures are collated on this, publishing will continue to look welcoming with no experience required at application, but without following this through when it comes to appointments. Until then, it’s all anecdotal.

Much like everything else in terms of making publishing more open and more diverse as an industry, it’s an ongoing issue. It just needs awareness and focus to begin to make the changes needed to deal with it effectively. That might be some time coming.

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