Diversity & Inclusion in the times of Corona: more important than ever or a nice-to-have?


It has been impressive to see how fast our industry has responded to the challenges presented by COVID-19. While many publishers are busy trying to keep their businesses running, it would be easy to dismiss diversity and inclusion (D&I) as just another aspect to address when times are better. However there are compelling arguments to put D&I high on the agenda before, during and after the pandemic.

In the broader society the Corona crisis has highlighted stark inequalities. In fact the very idea of inclusion is being challenged right now. We see kids without access to computers forced to learn remotely, ethnic groups without adequate access to health care, and increased burden on women with kids expected to work full time from home while home schooling and baby sitting their children at the same time. 

For businesses, it is well established that organizations that embrace D&I perform better financially, which is driven by the fact that they take better decisions, they are more creative and more innovative. It is these three benefits of D&I that can be absolute life savers during and after the pandemic. Which organization doesn’t want to take superior decisions and find more creative solutions in times of crisis?

For example, in Spain the best-selling author Javier Castillo is meeting 60,000 readers in lockdown to learn more about his new novel The Snow Girl. And the Penguin Talks program connects young people with the world’s leading writers and thinkers from Michelle Obama to Margaret Atwood to Stormzy.

The STM publishers collectively worked hard to make crucial COVID-19 information freely available fast. Closer to home at Elsevier we launched the Corona virus information center for researchers, health professionals and patients. At Elsevier we announced in January the launch of the D&I board of international experts with an initial focus on gender diversity and inclusion. This board has been convened recently. Moreover the topic of D&I has remained prominently on the agenda in the communication to the Elsevier staff. And I think this is important. It signals strongly that D&I is part of our core values and it also makes clear that during the pandemic we are all in it together and solidarity among colleagues is now more important than ever.  

How about post pandemic? Publishers do not operate in a vacuum and are part of the greater ecosystem. It remains to be seen whether COVID-19 will be catalyst for broader societal change. As the novelist Arundhati Roy put it: 

“[the pandemic] is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it”. 

Perhaps less poetic and more local and practical, in my hometown Amsterdam we are embracing the ‘doughnut’model to restart the local economy post pandemic. It sets a minimum standard based on the Sustainability Goals (the SDGs) which is a blueprint for the planet and its population, embracing a fairer and more equitable world that also covers gender equality and thus extending into Diversity & Inclusion. 

Previous societal crises have shown that in the post-crisis period some incumbent organizations and businesses can pick up where they left off before the crisis, others are not that fortunate. But it is especially during this period that innovative companies do exceptionally well. As if the fertile volcanic ash after a destructive eruption provides the perfect condition for innovative companies to flourish. It is the companies that have embraced and embedded diversity and built an inclusive culture that will be exceptionally innovative and thus successful post-pandemic. 

This is the perspective at the corporate or company level. In society and in politics we see that the pandemic will put increased pressure on the underprivileged and certainly on minorities and women – exactly the communities we are addressing in D&I policies. We already see that the more autocratic regimes have used the Covid-19 crisis as the motivation to limit personal liberties and that is not good news for minorities. That will also make the IPA’s fight for Freedom to Publish an even harder one.

We also see that the worsening economic situation will put women under more pressure than men. It is therefore of utmost importance that in the workplace, that for the employees in the publishing industry, there can be true inclusion for all, and a sense of belonging, for men and women, for straight and LGBTI colleagues, for white staff and coworkers of color, for able-bodied colleagues as well as staff with disabilities. Even more because ‘doing the right thing’ for the staff we employ will also bring such exceptional creative and innovative power: crucial characteristics during and after dramatic change. 

This pandemic, devastating as it is, is also an opportunity for a better and fairer world, as well as more diverse and more inclusive publishing houses. The opportunity is now – let’s embrace it in our publishing community. And the role of the IPA will be one of best practice sharing, but surely also as a catalyst of change, as a trailblazer for a better and fairer world in which publishers can flourish, have the true freedom to publish,  and in which our employees can thrive. 

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