It’s time diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives were subject to the same rigour as any other business strategy. Writing in the Grub Street Journal, Gary Rayneau, co-founder of Coaches of Colour and DEI consultancy Project 23, explains why publishers need a permanent shift in mindset that goes far beyond the bottom line.

We set up Project 23 back in May 2018 to help build inclusive and diverse cultures within the publishing industry. At first, it was hard. I banged on a lot of doors, and while a few listened, most wouldn’t. It all changed when George Floyd was murdered in 2020. That was the wake-up call the world needed. Overnight, all those people we were trying to speak to about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) wanted to speak to us. We’ve come a long way since.

However, change is slower at board level. Owners and leaders are still a pretty homogeneous group. That’s where the more radical change needs to happen, where the real systemic issues need to be addressed. And that’s why having a DEI mission statement or recruitment quota is not enough.

Beyond box ticking

No one is getting it 100% right – not in publishing, not in any sector. But everyone needs to move beyond the bare minimum. I’d rather a company admit, “We’re not where we want to be” than claim to have goals, but with nothing to back them up. When companies say they believe in greater diversity, equity and inclusion, but there’s no work being done, that’s just performative. Of course, they may be perfectly compliant, not breaking any laws, doing what’s considered best practice, conforming to the Equalities Act. But when you look deeper, there’s nothing proactive going on – and their goals are rarely reflected in their workplace culture. You may see a lot of change at the lower levels, but when you move up to the people who hold power in this industry, there’s still not enough progress.

Take the right-leaning national press brands that still brazenly publish anti-immigration or anti-trans rhetoric. The Telegraph recently put out a story with the headline, “Women and ethnic minorities overrepresented UK advertising industry, finds report” – which was somewhat misleading and inflammatory compared to the article’s actual content. It also massively undermines all the other good work that may be happening in the industry. How disheartening must it be for employees putting all these initiatives in place to champion their DEI efforts, only for tomorrow’s headline to be something so abhorrent? They are being compromised by the power structure that values commercial gain over people.

For an example of systemic power, take Jeremy Clarkson’s December 2022 column about Meghan Markle, published in The Sun – not an organisation where every article written gets immediately published. There are several steps in that process: there are people sub-editing and there’s editor approval. If you’re a woman of colour working for News UK, or The Sun in particular, how does that sit with you? There is a very visible DEI team at News UK, championed by leadership that is trying to improve things, yet some of the content from these brands, which is read by and influences millions, systematically undermines these efforts.

Outside the echo chamber

Remember that while DEI advocates are not exclusively people who are marginalised or in the minority, most are. And that’s a problem. One: for those individuals, it’s an emotionally draining task. Two: often they’re not paid or recognised for the extra work they’re doing on top of their ‘day job’. In fact, a lot of investment into progressing DEI has gone not to those groups that need it but towards educating the rest of the business. Now that’s all good and valid work – we do a lot of that ourselves at Project 23 – but there also needs to be more investment in individuals who are suffering from a lack of equity.

So whilst you’re trying to fix this broken, unfair system, which is still laced with privilege and bias, you’ve got to have an equitable solution for people suffering because of that system. Those two things need to happen in tandem. That’s something that we’ve tried to change this year with our business Coaches of Colour, which provides career coaching for people of colour by amazing coaches of colour.

An ongoing frustration as a practitioner in this industry is that sometimes you only ever hear from the advocates. There’s an echo chamber where everyone agrees that changes need to happen. But sometimes I want to be in a room full of people who don’t agree and don’t understand, because they’re the ones I need to work with.

Leaders play an important role here. It frustrates me when I see leaders who fit into whatever majority – usually white, middle-class men – who have no awareness of the power, influence and assumed privilege they have. I’ve seen them interrupting, talking over or dismissing others, even – ironically – in a conversation about DEI. I want to say to those people: You’re not just in here from a majority identity perspective. You’ve got power in this room. How can you be so blind to the fact that you’re dismissing all this amazing opinion, talent and intelligence around you because you’re filling the space, you’re always the first to talk, you are interrupting your colleague on your left, you are devaluing what everyone else has to say? The system just allows you to do that.

Carrot and stick

Some people come to DEI believing that it is just the right thing to do. I love that, because it aligns with my own values. One of our core beliefs at Project 23 is that if we do the right thing first, success will follow – rather than the other way around. That’s a good starting point, because it doesn’t negate people’s identities, feelings and emotions, all of which should be at the heart of DEI. The downside is that it only gets you so far, and unless you have those kinds of advocates throughout your business, especially at leadership level, then at some point you’ll run up against some kind of barrier – or another strategy that’s deemed more of a priority.

On the other hand, by focusing purely on the business case for DEI, you run the risk of viewing your staff as mere assets and dehumanising the whole issue. True DEI goes beyond a workplace initiative – it’s people’s lives. I repeatedly see the same mistake with DEI work; rarely is the same rigour applied to a company’s diversity and inclusion strategies as any other kind of strategy. It’s time DEI had that same level of robustness underpinning it, and by that I mean targets, accountability, measurement of progress and consequences.

This is where some DEI practitioners disagree. Some people believe talking about the ‘business case’ – boiling it down to a number in a spreadsheet – is degrading to the individuals who are suffering from discrimination. Others believe that it needs to be pinned to something else – the bottom line or the growth strategy or a client acquisition strategy – otherwise change will never happen. I think all approaches are needed.

Sometimes it’s about the carrot – ‘you need to support DEI because it benefits you and it benefits the whole business’. Other times, it’s the stick – ‘this is the company you work for, these are targets we’re all held accountable to, this is what your bonus depends on’. It’s too easy to label this an HR or people issue. This is an everyone issue.

So managers: when it comes to your staff’s next appraisal, make sure you’re investing in them, and taking into account all that great work they’ve done. If you see them trying to push the DEI agenda in order to make your company a more inclusive place, then factor that into their performance review.

Lofty – and long term

There was a burst of energy after George Floyd, but I know there is also exhaustion in the DEI space; it can be emotionally draining work. People who work in this space are tired. I think everyone is realising that DEI isn’t a quick fix – it needs to be an ‘always-on’ strategy. It’s important to have longer-term goals, because if you try and put any short-term emphasis on your DEI work, it will seem unrewarding, a cost rather than an investment.

We can’t keep talking about DEI efforts in silos. It should be considered a fundamental part of the business: your performance, your leadership coaching or training, your recruitment and your organisational culture. If you state that you have DEI ambitions, make sure you’ve applied business rigour behind them. Apply the exact same metrics as any other strategy. Without that, DEI will always be de-prioritised and under-resourced.

The publishing industry has never been great at coming together – we’ve always been quite competitive with each other – yet there’s so much scope to unify and create industry-wide goals and objectives. I’d like to see some blanket initiatives come into play, whether it’s a form of charter or a drive to improve recruitment to the industry – something that used to be a ‘nice to have’ but will soon become an absolute prerequisite. In the UK we are becoming more diverse as a nation, and the new generation of workers is looking for organisations that have purpose, and leaders who take a stance.

Our aim at Project 23 is to ensure that workplaces are better for everyone, not just the majority. And here’s the important point: DEI is not just about making workplaces better and fairer for marginalised communities. It’s about creating workplaces that are better for everyone.

This article originally appeared in The Grub Street Journal, the magazine for people who make magazines. Brutally honest but relentlessly optimistic, we’re looking for answers to the biggest questions in modern publishing, like ‘What kind of idiots still make magazines?‘ and ‘Can you make a magazine AND a profit?‘ Get your own copy at

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