Making Progress: Publishing Empowering Women in the Age of #MeToo

I know you’ve seen it; the #MeToo tag is everywhere. It’s in news headlines, articles, journals, and new books; searchable from NPR to Goodreads. 2017 was a powerful year. Originally started by social activist Tarana Burke in 2006, the #MeToo movement has brought the systemic oppression of women and workplace sexual assault and harassment to the forefront of conversation.

The eruption of conversation is telling, exposing how difficult is it for women to come forward. Victims of sexual assault and harassment often fear that they won’t be believed—that they will be blamed or experience some form of retaliation—and many talk themselves into bearing the weight of responsibility. A recent study backs up this feeling, reporting that not only do 25 to 85 percent of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace, but 75 percent of victims experienced retaliation after coming forward. That’s a staggering number.

More recently, the #MeToo movement has put the publishing industry in the spotlight, particularly the children’s book publishing industry. In the last year, some of the biggest names in children’s books, YA, and illustration have been called out for sexual harassment. James Dashner, the author of The Maze Runner series, was dropped by Random House. Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why, and David Diaz were recently expelled from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for violating their code of conduct. Daniel Handler, otherwise known as Lemony Snicket and the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, has been called out in a condemning compilation of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior allegations by PS Magazine. Sherman Alexie is under fire for allegations of sexual harassment reported by multiple women, as are illustrators Giuseppe Castellano and Eddie Berganza.

Despite the fact that 80 percent of the publishing workforce is made up of women, men hold a great deal of power—51 percent of managers are men, and Publishers Weekly reports that “the median salary for men in management is $127,000-$10,000 higher than the median for women.” Across all areas of work in the industry, the median salary is $93,000 for men and $65,000 for women. Men make more money than women across the board. And in an industry dominated by women, this is unacceptable. It’s the age-old story of power and its abuse.

In a recent Medium article based on a survey of the industry, “Sexual Harassment in the Children’s Book Industry”, Anne Ursu documented instances of sexual harassment and abuse of power by highlighting accounts of inappropriate comments at parties, events, and meetings, unwanted touching, and intimidation. Though she did not name any authors, illustrators, or executives by name, her article inspired writers, editors, sales reps, illustrators, and everyone in between to come forward and tell their stories of sexual assault and harassment in the publishing industry.

Soon after, a Publishers Weekly article compiled stories from various women who work in the publishing industry at all levels from sales to distribution, editing, and management, in a slew of horrific instances of gross abuse of power, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. They’re powerful accounts that remind us that even in an industry that values progressive thought, we’re still behind. Even in the comments section of the article, men who work in the publishing industry attempt to put the responsibility on women who “should’ve seen it coming.”

With all eyes on the #MeToo movement, a number of books focus on themes of women’s empowerment: In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules by Karen Karbo, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen, This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jenkins, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Asking for It by Kate Harding, and even in children’s books such as My Feminist ABC from DuoPress.

And the shake-up does not stop with the publishing of books. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism, created a website for people of any gender to anonymously share their experiences of sexual aggression. And in the wake of Ursu’s article, YA and children’s book author Gwenda Bond invited people in the publishing industry to sign an anti-harassment pledge committing to not attend book events that “lack or fail to enforce a specific anti-harassment plan.”

There must be a cultural transformation. We have a responsibility to act and draw the line. There need to be firm and upheld codes of conduct for workplaces, book fairs, events, and seminars. On the part of the consumer, consider the strength of your purchasing power. By refusing to support the work of well-documented assaulters in favor of writers who actively spread awareness, you have a voice.

There is power in storytelling. By telling our stories, continuing the conversation, and putting in the work until this issue becomes rare, we can—together—combat decades of harassment in the workplace. In the searing words of Rebecca Solnit, “They are ugly stories. Telling them is painful…but letting lives bloom free of this hidden grief and fear is what this movement is for.”

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