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Podcast: Finding empowerment in the book industry with Cynthia Pong

Filed under: Podcasts, Tech Forum

Cynthia Pong, feminist career strategist, founder of Embrace Change, and Tech Forum 2020 speaker, joins us this month to talk about the publishing industry’s vertical segregation problem, why stats on diversity haven’t been shifting much, and how we can balance addressing systemic issues with helping individuals to empower themselves.

(Scroll down for a transcript of the conversation.)

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Further reading/listening


Zalina Alvi: Welcome to this month’s episode of “The BookNet Canada Podcast.” I’m your host, Zalina Alvi, the marketing and communications manager at BookNet. We’ve been busy getting ready for our annual Tech Forum Conference, which is just a few weeks away at the end of March. Speakers from both within and outside the industry will be congregating in Toronto for three days to discuss everything from recommendation systems to author care. One of those speakers is Cynthia Pong.

Cynthia is a former lawyer whose passion is helping women of colour realize their ambitious career goals through her company Embrace Change. She especially loves strategizing with mid-career women of colour professionals pursuing unconventional paths. Her coaching focuses on empowering clients, sharpening their negotiation skills, and building their business acumen.

She’ll be bringing that expertise to Tech Forum on March 25 through a workshop called “Be Seen, Be Heard: A Workshop to Help You Reclaim Power In Your Career.” It’s for anyone in the book industry who identifies as a woman, like indigenous, person of colour, a nonbinary person, or LGBTQ+ and wants actionable, high-impact tools and strategies to empower themselves in their day-to-day, and in their overall career trajectory.

For this month’s episode, I talked with Cynthia about the publishing industry’s vertical segregation problem, why stats on diversity haven’t been shifting much, and how we can balance addressing systemic issues with helping individuals to empower themselves. So here’s our discussion, and make sure to check the show notes for the links we mentioned and how you can attend the workshop in March.

Thank you so much for joining me on this month’s podcast.

Cynthia Pong: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Zalina: So jumping right into things. So, you mentioned in your workshop description for Tech Forum that the publishing industry has a vertical segregation problem. Can you elaborate a bit on what that means exactly?

Cynthia: Yeah, definitely. So what I’m talking about there is when maybe there are a lot of women, BIPOC folks, folks from other marginalized communities within the industry as a whole, but there are very few or sometimes none to speak of at the top among the leadership. That’s what I’m talking about when I’m saying vertical segregation.

Zalina: It sounds natural to me, when you talked about this subject, to think about terms like diversity, equity, inclusion, all of these things. Before we get into some other things, can you first, like, start off from the top just to share how you define each of those terms, and how maybe they differ, and how they’re related?

Cynthia: Yeah, totally. So, my favourite set of definitions for diversity, equity, and inclusion is from Meg Bolger, who is a DEI trainer, facilitator, and consultant. And I can send you the link if you want to put in the show notes of this article that Meg wrote. But diversity is kind of a more baseline term. Diversity simply in the context of DNI or DEI stuff, is having people from different kinds of backgrounds, people with different sorts of identities in a particular community, however that’s defined. So, in a workplace, in an industry, in a set of organizations. Also, since we’re on the topic, and this is something Meg points out too, and it’s one of my pet peeves, there’s no such thing as a diverse person or a diverse candidate, right? One person cannot be diverse because they are one person. All right.

So then equity, Meg defines as fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, regardless of what your identities are, regardless of what kind of background you come from. So, this is where you start bringing in some acknowledgement of the fact that we’re not all starting from the same starting point because of institutional oppression, because of systemic oppression over many, many decades and centuries. All right. So, that’s equity.

Inclusion is where you have people from different identities and different backgrounds, and they feel and actually are being valued and welcomed within a particular community or setting. Literally, they are being included in a meaningful way. So, that’s inclusion. I will throw in that I recently heard of a new variation of this, which an acronym is a little bit hokey, but it’s JEDI. So, it stands for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. I mean, I appreciate the effort there. I do think it’s catchy and it’s sticky. You know, you can remember that easily. Of course, I do also like that it includes justice. So, I will throw that out to you. Have you ever heard of that term?

Zalina: I have not, but that actually makes so much sense because you hear the other three, EDI, a lot. So, throwing on that J actually works really well.

Cynthia: Yeah, I know. Whoever did that, you know, credit to them. But yeah. I mean, I don’t know if you’re interested in this or listeners are interested in this, but on a related point, there’s a really good article with some graphics that unpack and discuss the problems with this equity graphic that, you know, has gone around on the internet. You may or may not have seen it. It’s like people of different heights standing on crates of different heights trying to look over a fence. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Zalina: Yeah.

Cynthia: Yeah. So, you know, I can send you the link to that too. Because it’s very interesting the way that the most commonly seen version has the people in the boxes and whatnot is actually interestingly pretty problematic because it implies a couple of, you know, things like our height difference, for example, like that’s supposed to be communicating difference in race or whatnot. And it’s implied that that’s an inherent flaw of the person or the group, you know, that they’re shorter in the graphic. So a lot of really interesting stuff in this area, but we can leave that for another day.

Zalina: Yeah. Well, that’s a huge topic, but that’s interesting. Yeah. Definitely send that to me and I’ll make sure it’s in the show notes.

Cynthia: Sure.

Zalina: So, the last two years, I feel like there’s been a lot of talk about these issues, conference panels, surveys, you know, attempts to, like, understand, discuss the lack of diversity and, you know, issues of equity, inclusion especially in the Canadian publishing industry and especially in positions of power. But very little seems to have actually changed in that time.

So, to just throw some stats at you, Quill and Quire‘s latest salary survey for the Canadian publishing industry recently found that women’s salaries have remained stagnant at an average of 45,000 while men’s have increased to more than 60,000, which is up from 54,000 in 2013. And this is despite the fact that 84% of those respondents identified as female. Meanwhile, only 13% identified as non-white, 13% identified as LGBTQ+, and 3% identified as a person with a disability. So, I mean, that’s a big thing to…there’s a lot in there. But what do you think are the main obstacles preventing some of those numbers from shifting?

Cynthia: Yeah. I mean, those are very discouraging statistics, right? Yeah. So, there’s really no way to sugarcoat this. I think people in power don’t tend to want to give it up or share it, and that’s how it’s perceived. Like, to make space and give real opportunities, real access, actual money to people who are not straight, white, cisgender men, like, it’s perceived that that is for them giving up power, and money, and access that they would have had and probably feel entitled to. Because we think of all these things as a zero-sum game. You know, more for you means less for me. That’s how it’s often framed. And that’s how I think people in their gut feel about it. You know, we make our decisions based on our emotions. And, you know, I think that this is like a highly charged area for that reason.

So, naturally, people who currently occupy these positions and feel like it’s their birthrights because that’s who they see in those positions for generations going back, they’re naturally gonna feel, like, threatened by the suggestion to not save this spot for your friend who also looks like you and came from the same background and, like, lives in the same neighbourhood, etc, you know. So, that’s what I think is at the root of this.

A side note, again, a lot of times people want to cite, like, the pipeline being an issue, and I find that a very problematic argument. By pipeline issue, I mean there’s no…for example, there’s no BIPOC folks at the top in leadership because there’s not enough qualified BIPOC folks coming down the pipeline. Like, there’s not enough, you know, BIPOC kids getting into the right programs in elementary school and then in college. And so, therefore, there’s a scarcity of qualified candidates. That’s, like, the argument.

I don’t buy it, like, at all. Because I know that there’s tons of educated, talented, highly-qualified BIPOC folks in publishing. You know, they’re there. And many, frankly, leave or feel pushed out of the industry because they know that there’s no real chance at growth or at, you know, vertical mobility and also maybe because they’re underpaid. So, a bunch of reasons people get pushed out. And then I think it’s really messed up to blame the problem on them, you know. So, I don’t know. But you have actual knowledge about, like, what’s happening in the Canadian publishing industry. What do you think it’s about?

Zalina: I mean, it’s interesting what you talked about, to begin with, sounds…other people, you know, wanting to keep the pie to themselves, that sounds like that’s fear, right? “That there’s only so much to go around, so I shouldn’t have to share. I work hard. And other people can work hard the way I work hard. Why can’t everyone just do it that way?” Right?

Cynthia: Yeah.

Zalina: And it’s interesting, in the publishing industry in particular, because it’s not like it’s a booming industry that is, you know, seeing increasing profits every year, 10% more or whatever. And you can almost feel like people could be more generous, more open to these things, feel like they can encourage people to move into higher up positions if they saw that was the case. But because it’s relatively flat, it feels like everyone needs to keep their belts tight, keep their status quo, just try to survive for the next year. And no one really has the courage because there’s all this other fear to take, I guess, brave steps.

Cynthia: Right. Yeah. Wow. Okay. That was super insightful. And I want to ask you all about that. I mean, I think you’ve hit it on the head. It’s not solely the publishing industry. You know, there’s lots of nonprofit industries, lots of other industries that I think feel this fear and the scarcity mindset is very, very powerful. And I get that. And also, you know, it’s something that you all talked about in the #payinterns episode, too. You know, like, there’s not enough to go around. The problem with that type of mindset is that it’s very difficult to…it’s not conducive to creative and innovative thinking.

And, you know, Tech Forums, like, the roots of it are about change, and technology, and changing technology, right? And like how to adapt to it and stuff. So, like, taking that spirit and applying it to the industry at large to understand that like, “Yes, change is inevitable and change is scary.” And it might feel a certain way, but, like, that’s a challenge that we can all, like, courageously rise to figure out how can you maximize what there is to go around, you know.

I’m like, “I don’t have the answers.” But, you know, there probably are ways to figure out how there can be more money. Like how you could stretch budgets or, like, find more creative ways, I don’t know, to maybe even collaborate with other industries, you know, to increase the pie. Forget that there even is a pie, right? So, that’s what I think people’s energy will be better spent thinking about, you know, as opposed to like, “How can I continue to grab this for myself and my friends?”

Zalina: Yeah. And, you know, it’s interesting making that parallel, it’s like the technological change that we focus on a lot. You know, change is scary and it requires an assessment of, you know, time and energy and you don’t know if it’s gonna pay off. But we really try to stress that, like, taking these chances, putting in the effort in with maybe short-term uncertainty can lead to much better long-term gains.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Zalina: I think that applies here too.

Cynthia: No, 100%. And we always think about the risks of changing, but what we don’t think about as much is the risk of not changing.

Zalina: Absolutely.

Cynthia: Time is only going one way. And that’s, like, in a sense, you could say, we’re losing time, like, all the time. And so, if we don’t take advantage of being ahead of it as it were, you know, being innovative, being open, being creative, you know, those opportunities, they aren’t always there.

Zalina: So, take that fear and place it there.

Cynthia: Yeah. Yeah. Calculated risks are something that I think…in maybe industries like publishing and the literary world, it’s undervalued or, like, it doesn’t get the credit that it’s due.

Zalina: Absolutely. So, kind of taking a moment to look past the systemic issues at play. You mentioned in your workshop description that individuals from marginalized communities can empower themselves using certain tools and strategies, and those are the focus of your workshop. Can you explain briefly what those are?

Cynthia: Yeah. So, here’s the thing, I think there’s a strong tendency for things to feel very disempowering and really demoralizing when you know that you work in an industry where you don’t see a lot of people who look like you at the top. It sends a message, right? That sends a very strong and clear message that is not inclusive and that is not equitable. So, to sort of a balance out and make sure that, like, people don’t feel only demoralized, you know… I’m the type of person who I strongly believe in people power and in the power in the agency that we all have. You know, a lot of my work is about trying to get my clients to see how powerful they really are. And, you know, it’s something that was always there and within them, but sometimes you just need someone else to reflect it back to you.

So, anyway, that is why I facilitate and teach these kind of workshops. That’s why I speak on these things. And the workshop at Tech Forum that I’m doing is called “Be Seen, Be Heard.” It’s all about reclaiming power in your career. So, I’ll be sharing tools to help folks advocate better for themselves. So, that means, like, tips to help you get more comfortable speaking up for yourself and voicing your opinion, or expressing your preferences or your ideas at work. It also means negotiation techniques and strategies, like basic ones, you know, just to get you started and not feel like negotiation is this big stressful, anxiety-provoking thing.

And third, like, strategies to help you build and strengthen your support systems, your community within your work-life, and hopefully leverage that, you know. Because advocacy on a group level, collective bargaining, like, being organized, that I think is key to pushing for bigger change. And I once recently heard, you know, it was from Rachael DeCruz, who’s the chief of staff at Race Forward, which is…I don’t know. Do you know them? They’re a big organization.

Zalina: No.

Cynthia: So, they do a lot of policy work around DEI stuff. And they’re a huge national organization, they’re doing a ton of really amazing work. You can check them out, I’ll send you their link after. But I was on a panel with Rachael and she said that you don’t need…that all you need to reach that tipping point to create massive social change is you only need, like, 20% to 30% buy-in. Like we often think, “Oh, I have to convince like 95% of people, you know, to come over to my side for what I’m…right, in order to flip this situation.” But she said that actually, you only need 20% to 30% of people to be bought in and then it’s like a snowball effect, and it rolls from there. So, I find great encouragement in that. And I’ve now rambled on quite a lot, so I’ll kick it back to you.

Zalina: No, that’s perfect. It does sound all very encouraging because we hear a lot about the systemic issues and the problems. It is really refreshing to hear that people can actually do something. There are practical things that you can do and that not everything is out of your hands.

Cynthia: Yeah. Right. And certainly, a lot of things are outside of individual people’s hands. Like, I don’t have any delusions about that. At the same time, you know, I think it’s worse to feel just like despair, you know?

Zalina: For sure. So it’s interesting because when I first saw your workshop description, the first thing I thought about was maybe discussion around climate change. Like, there’s this idea that when a campaign or a newspaper or whatever encourages individuals to take action, to say like, fly less, change their daily habits in order to make a difference, they’re actually taking attention away from the real culprits, you know, these huge corporations that account for, in a way, bigger carbon footprint than all of us individuals combined.

So what would you say to the criticism that by asking individuals with the least power to take action, that we’re actually, like, maybe taking attention away or responsibility away from the larger power structures that are really at fault? I mean, do you think it’s possible to address both systemic issues and individual actions without making it seem like, you know, the onus is on the little guys at the bottom to help themselves?

Cynthia: Yeah. I’m so glad you asked this question. I 100% think this is an and situation, not an or situation. So, both things need to be happening. You know, the people in leadership who have power need to be held accountable, and they need to make massive change. At the same time, I think that there are things that individuals can do to make their day-to-day, like short-term, you know, career goals, stuff like that, very concrete specific to the individual. I think we still have a lot of agency over that to a point, of course.

So, the reason I’m so glad you brought this up is because, actually, in my first conversation with somebody at Tech Forum about me doing something there, I was like, “Okay. So, what kind of training are the white folks in leadership getting? What’s happening for them while I talk to the other people?” Because I’m well aware that the burden cannot and should not be on people with less relative power and access. Like, that’s a real blame-the-victim kind of dynamic. I’m not here for it.

Okay. So, I was trying to map out this analogy between the climate change, climate justice thing to what I’m talking about, to understand how I felt like it didn’t quite match up. So, hear me out and see if this makes sense to you. So, I think the calling on people to change their individual actions, like the take fewer aeroplane flights and don’t use plastic straws, use canvas bags, all that stuff, that’s, like, for example, telling BIPOC folks to do their own anti-oppression work. All right? I don’t have a problem with that. But it’s definitely an individual action, limited impact.

Corporation polluting is, to me, like the white men in leadership who are continuing to not give access to positions of power and keeping the rest of us down, like, in the industry. So, us doing our own anti-oppression work is not going to change the overall power structures. And that’s not what I am suggesting. I’m saying that us sort of pushing for change as individuals and sort of collectively as an organized group, and strategically figuring out how we can hold the leadership accountable and agitate for change from them is what we should empower ourselves to do.

So, I guess it’s like a third thing. I don’t think it maps quite onto the, like, don’t use plastic straws and takes fewer flights thing. I think it’s maybe more like climate activists demonstrating and protesting or being really cognisant of what corporations you give your dollars to and pushing for legislative change, things like that. So, you know, I think when I started this answer, I was like, “It’s an and situation.” I think it’s like the people in power need to change. And, you know, on an individual level, we got to figure out how we can give ourselves the voices that…amplify our own voices to call for the people in power to change.

Zalina: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. That’s actually a really good analogy to like the community activism and empowering people to change things that, like, ideally or if done right affect change higher up on the ladder. That makes a lot of sense.

Cynthia: Cool.

Zalina: So, sort of on the note, so I saw an article recently shared on Twitter from the Harvard Business Review written by Herminia Ibarra, talking about how mentorship is great and all, but what people from marginalized communities really need is sponsorship. And she made, like, a distinction between these two things. Sponsorship meaning someone with power really going to bat for you and really using their power to help you advance in very real ways. Do you agree with that sentiment that there are limits to the benefits of mentorship and that there’s distinction?

Cynthia: Totally, 100%. And it’s so funny, the timing of this, because I’m in the middle of a series of posts on LinkedIn about this very topic, like literally mentorship, sponsorship, and championing, you know, all the dynamics around that, especially for women of colour. So, as a point of interest, women and women of colour get so much advise whether we ask for it or not. You know, people are always telling us what we should do, you know, what we really should have done, like, all this stuff.

And instead of that, what we actually need is for you to pay us the same as white men and for you to give us opportunities to show our leadership and recognize. Give us the recognition, the amplification, the credit, the accolades that we already deserve. So, I apply that to everyone who’s from a marginalized community or from any background that’s not white, straight, cisgender men. So, all of that is to say we don’t need more mentors. We really need people who are going to open doors. And maybe you step aside, you know, and give some real opportunities and put their money where their mouth is. Actions, basically, we need actions, fewer words. Maybe that’s not good to stay in, like, a publishing industry thing because words are important. I get it. Yeah. So, that’s like a thing.

So, part of the series on LinkedIn, I came across a post from a colleague. This was an article from Forbes, I want to say. So Jamie Tynan, who is an exec, I think, in the medical field, has started this thing called the 100 by 2030 pledge. So, she has pledged to sponsor 100 women of colour by 2030 to do her part in closing the wage gap, the opportunity gap, all of that, the leadership gap, all that stuff. Yeah. I should say she’s a woman of colour herself. And for her, she had such a pivotal moment when someone did sponsor her or champion her that she was like, “I have to do my part too.” So then, you know, I have also committed to 100 by 2030. And, like, I’m looking forward to other people doing it too because that’s the only way real change is going to happen.

Zalina: No, I love that. I love this focus on action, practical things, actual things you can do, not just talking about the issues. I think it’s a really refreshing and much-needed approach.

Cynthia: Awesome. I mean, that’s what I’m about. I’m not as good as, like, all the talky stuff, but, you know, I can come up with an action plan.

Zalina: Yeah, I think people are going to be very excited for this workshop. And I hope they are ready to, like, make some plans, think about what they’re going to do the next day at work, all that. Well, so what do you hope people who attend your workshop will walk away with? What do you want them to do at work the next day?

Cynthia: Yeah. So, mainly, I want… You know, for all of you who come, I really hope that the workshop helps you realize and truly feel that you have more power and more agency than maybe you previously thought. And I hope that you walk out of that room with the fuel that you need to use that power and to create more justice and equity in publishing in Canada not only for yourself, but also for everybody else around you.

Zalina: I think that’s a perfect note to end on, actually.

Cynthia: Thank you.

Zalina: Yeah. Okay, cool. Is there anything, like, really pressing you wanted to make sure you said or anything?

Cynthia: No. But I did want to say if anyone is ever in New York, then definitely they can come visit me at my volunteer community gig every other Friday afternoon at Word Up Community Bookshop, which is a volunteer-driven nonprofit in the bookseller and community space. If you enjoy being in publishing, you’ll really love Word Up. And it’s awesome. We love international visitors and other literary folks. So, that’s what I wanted to throw in there.

Zalina: I love all the words you just said. That sounds like an amazing place.

Cynthia: Yeah, we would love to have you visit.

Zalina: Yeah, I’ll make sure I grab the link and then I put it in the notes as well.

Cynthia: Oh, yeah, yeah. Okay. I’ll send you that link too.

Zalina: Thanks to Cynthia for joining me for this month’s podcast. Once again, you can find all the links we mentioned in the show notes. I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge that BookNet Canada staff, board, partners, and our makeshift podcast studio, operate upon the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and Huron indigenous peoples, the original nations of this land. We endorse the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and support an ongoing shift from gatekeeping to space-making in the book industry. And we hope that our work, including this podcast, helps to create an environment that supports that shift. We’d also like to acknowledge the Government of Canada for their financial support through the Canada Book Fund. And of course, thanks to you for listening.