Through the Looking Glass: Lack of DEI & the RITAs

The prestigious award is losing credibility when it misses the mark on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

As a member of the Romance Writers of America, I haven’t said anything around the RITAs lately, but as I talk to my DEI practitioners and colleagues about the ongoing lack of inclusion in publishing and RWA I can’t “not” say anything about it any longer. For almost two years being a member, I’ve been observing the state of the organization as not just an author and woman of color, but also as someone who works in DEI. Between my corporate life and my author life, it’s sad I cannot escape the blatant lack of diversity and inclusion in both the tech and entertainment sectors.

I know how difficult it is to be a change agent, especially in this environment and it’s tough, but at some point, the band-aids gotta rip off and organizations need to own up and shape up. The balancing act of looking at this through so many perspectives is dizzying and as I write this, RWA’s PAN forum is a full-on dumpster fire, so I’ll try to be as clear as possible. There’s a lot that RWA can learn from the work being done around diversity, equity and inclusion in the corporate world.

For those unfamiliar with how Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) works, Verna Myers broke it down in terms easiest for most to understand:

Diagram courtesy of ImpactDEI

The RITAs is a prestigious award given to a published romance author based on the judging of their peers, and considered the highest honor in Romance publishing. Since I’ve joined RWA last year, it’s been very troubling to learn that a black author has never won this award. Very few even final. In fact, there’s just a clear lack of representation from many marginalized groups. Add in intersectionality (which typically means that representation would be even lower for a POC who also identifies as LGBTQ)and the problem expands. The issue has continued to churn, without much coordinated efforts to resolve this lack of equity. DEI all works together: you can’t really have one without the other. Equity is leveling the playing field realizing that some groups have more privilege than others. It’s giving fair opportunity. I do not see this with how the RITAs are structured. This is part of the problem, since there’s already data that shows lack of visibility and representation of these very same groups in the publishing industry as a whole.

Here’s the rip at the band-aid: RWA must move from talking and data gathering to action.

Don’t get me wrong, talking is good and it’s how we learn about the existing issues and hear each other’s stories. Talking about it makes it real. But, when the problems have existed for a long period of time and all that is happening is just more talk about same issues and more stories which reflect those issues, we all start to encounter fatigue. Alexis Daria, a Latinx Romance author and 2018 RITA winner for “Best First Book,” illustrates such fatigue in her latest tweet.

Yes, Diversity and Inclusion fatigue is real and it can have a huge backlash on resolving the DEI problems within your organization. There’s a sense of hopelessness, anxiety and even anger that can arise from all the talking that leads to no changes. Think about the word I just used…

I said “changes”, not solutions. Why? Because every organization tries to go in and create or search for “the magic solution” as if there’s one magic bullet that can make all this uncomfortableness and morale killing disappear.

Let me tell you this; it doesn’t exist.

And it’s that nonsensical belief that usually keep organizations suspended in trauma until they try to find this miracle solution. Either that, or they get so overwhelmed on where to start that the company just stays still.

Stop treading water and freaking swim!

Every company and org is different in tackling DEI. Every. Single. One. You cannot attack it the same way as every other group and some goals will be harder to hit than others. You’re not gonna ace it right out the gate. But you have to try something and make an impact.

Here’s the basic tactics of starting to improve DEI in your org:

  1. Acknowledge there’s a problem. Validate your members feelings whether you have data or not. How they feel is their data, so don’t discount it. Create a safe place for them to voice their truths. If you don’t have data, now’s the time to go get some.
  2. When you have the data, make it transparent. Even if the data “proves” something otherwise, be clear that this in no way negates the feelings your members have. People don’t raise an issue consistently for the hell of it. There still is an issue — you just haven’t seen it. Don’t forget, this isn’t about quotas, spreadsheets and numbers. This is about PEOPLE.
  3. Make small changes, small goals and share your hits and misses with the group. No one’s an expert on this and there will be things you try that fall flat and don’t work. Own it, pick up the pieces and ensure your org you are trying something else. Transparency and progression is key.
  4. Waiting for the “big plan” or “the solution” will take too long and have you spinning your wheels. In every situation, there’s an opportunity to make some small but impactful changes. Don’t wait. The longer you wait, the more credibility your organization loses by doing nothing. Transparency and progression is key. (Nope, not a typo — it’s that important)
  5. Learn to kill the “sacred cow”. You will likely find that some traditions or cultural standards are counterproductive to your inclusion efforts. Times change and they do, so does the social implications displayed through some traditions. Just because it’s “always been done this way” doesn’t mean it’s the way to do it now. Now’s the time to open the hood and bring in new eyes to ask, “How’s a better way we can do this?”
  6. Eliminating biases isn’t a training program or a “shame talk” away; it’s a constant, conscious exercise for individuals, and ongoing, integrated work for organizations. Even at your best efforts, an organization cannot rely on people working past their biases (either conscious or unconscious). Your members are working on an individual level, you as a company have to consider change on a much larger scope. You need to update your processes to prevent bias from flourishing within your company.
  7. Inclusion must be built into the very blood and DNA of your organization for change to truly happen and stick. How people are recruited, how they are hired/elected, awards, etc. all need to implemented with an goal to remove as much opportunity for those harmful biases from seeping in. If the data is showing that a peer-selected awards is resulting in gross lack of fairness and diversity, then it’s time to either make it harder for these peers to make decisions based off their bias, or take them out of the equation all together.
  8. Transparency and consistency is more valuable than you know when it comes to making your company more inclusive and fight bias. Being measured on a consistent criteria helps eliminate issues around prejudging and bias. For an award system, there needs to be areas of focus for the judges to score. Define clearly what those areas are and it should be clear that they may be called to explain their rating in deeper detail should the need arise. People are more likely to walk the line when they know their decisions are visible and open to question.

Soo, as a DEI advocate, an author of color, a RITA judge AND an RWA member, here’s my recommendation:

  1. Move judging to a less bias-friendly system. There’s definitely an illusion of objectivity in the RITAs, where the judging seems anything but. Tasks that are open to interpretation and subjectivity are no good to create a fair judging system. It doesn’t matter who you get to judge; with subjectivity comes problems with bias. Shrink your pool of judges, create clear and concise criteria (like a rubric) is common in awards systems and was disappointed to see that such a thing didn’t exist when I judged this year’s RITAs. This is supposed to be a prestigious award to highlight the very best in Romance; it deserves the fairest, consistent method of judging such works.
  2. Transparency of judging feedback can show authenticity and openness. When things are done in the dark, or siloed, there’s too much to question if criteria was met without bias or vindictiveness. For such a program as an award where the members are constantly improving their craft, it’s actually quite apropos to share this feedback to not only be shared to the entrant, but for a ‘bias distrupter’ (a party with no skin in the game to review outliers) to check against.
  3. Anonymity of submissions is actually proven to be quite bias disrupting. When orchestras started moving to “blind” auditions, women musicians increased. So, seeing as that the book cover and author name isn’t put into the rating for the submissions, I had to ask, “What is the point of including this data?” As a judge, if it’s not information I need to make a decision, than it is distracting and unnecessary. This is the same question I ask managers when making hiring decisions and looking at resumes. Items like name, graduation year and college name attended is not needed for me decide if the person is the best for the job, so why do I need to see it? Especially if those items are fodder for prodding my bias, I don’t care to see it. If you’re seeing, you’re judging. Sure, this will not solve all the issues. Yes, if someone really wants to see who wrote the submission with a little search they could (as I could search with resume data), but that’s an individual who would do that regardless. You can’t eliminate all of it. Some people are broken and will have those behaviors. Your job as leader of an org is to part up as many roadblocks to bias to protect the space as possible. I wouldn’t discount this as an additional item at all.
  4. If you don’t have a DEI consultant or practitioner working on this, I personally have a hard time believing anything will truly change. Sorry, many may not agree, but in my circles, companies and organizations have to learn to put their money where their mouth is and invest in bringing DEI into every function of their business. Far too many times I’ve seen DEI get pushed into the corner behind other priorities for a business and get reduced funding or other resources, as if it’s an afterthought. If you as a company or organization isn’t proactive about getting ahead of this and willing to give the necessary resources to make true change, then you’re just wasting everyone’s time. No org is expected to know how to do this. DEI is hard. But in knowing that, if your organization is still fluttering around asking questions, the committee has no true power to function as a change agent, and the members still feel as if the same problems still exist, and yet you have no investment in specialized guidance for DEI, you’re just doing lip service.

There is a lot of work to be done. I hope that the national leadership is ready, but if they don’t run on annual goals for the organization, maybe now’s a great time to start. I hope we see “Creating a bias-resistent RITAs” and “Rebuilding credibility and an inclusive culture in RWA” on the top of that list.

Great Reads to Understand Bias and systemic racism:

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us & What We Can Do — Author: Claude M. Steele — https://www.amazon.com/dp/B004TM9NOO

Thinking Fast & Slow — Author: Daniel Kahneman — https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00555X8OA

Why All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria? — Author: Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D , https://www.amazon.com/Black-Kids-Sitting-Together-Cafeteria/dp/0465060684