Since taking the reigns as editor of British Cosmopolitan in 2015, the 38-year-old Salford-born journalist Farrah Storr has overseen the publication’s surge in popularity, and recently found herself being listed as one of the most powerful people in the country according to The Guardian. The list is made up of 1,049 influential decision-makers and gatekeepers in industries that include finance, politics and media. Storr's inclusion is a major achievement, but the list highlights the stark inequality at the top of British life: it only features 36 non-white people, meaning that ethnic minorities made up 3.4 per cent of the list, clearly disproportionate to the 12.9 per cent of ethnic minority people who make up the British population. While institutional racism has no doubt played a part in limiting work opportunities for those who are from a black and Asian background, Storr points out that culture plays a huge role in why there are so few non-white journalists.
“Like most kids from Asian backgrounds, my dad, who is from Pakistan, wanted us to be doctors, lawyers or engineers. I’m a second-generation immigrant and, if you come from an Asian background, generally speaking, there is an emphasis on traditional well-paid jobs with security. Work like journalism, especially on glossy magazines, doesn’t have intellectual status and I don’t think, as a parent, [journalism] has never been seen as having financial security.”
She continues: “I can only speak from my experience of having an Asian father, but, yes, my dad is very proud of me, but I still think he wishes I was a doctor.”
Storr is quick to point out the lack of women of colour that made the list and that the majority of the black and Asian luminaries in the line-up aren’t from the world of journalism.
“I think the media industry is behind [in terms of diversity], but I don’t think there is one cause. With this particular power list, there are a lot of Asian men and Asian women in politics, and that goes back to the idea that politics is perceived as a prestigious profession.
“One of the things that actually came to me is that the media, in my culture, is not seen as a place for Asian men or women. Although, I think that is changing, but I don’t know why things aren’t moving quicker.”
As a woman of colour, Storrs says it is her “duty” to ensure journalism becomes as diverse as possible – and, proving that she is not just a woman of words, but a woman of action, too, she has established Cosmopolitan’s HomeMade campaign. The initiative provides low-cost rental housing for people just starting out in their careers – a move that Storr hopes will allow for greater diversity, especially in low-paid but influential industries like journalism.
“Two-fifths of people from ethnic minorities come from lower socioeconomic households,” explains Storr. “So, if you are from a BAME background, or you could even be first-immigrant Polish, [interning in London] is probably not going to be an option for you, because you are not going to be able to afford to that.
“When I started at Cosmo, we were advertising for a features intern. We had over 800 applications and most of the applicants were university-educated, and most of them lived in the South East or lived in London. I realised we had a problem because we are only getting the same type of person applying.
When the picture of the Sri Lankan lady appeared on her screen, the editor started shaking her head and said, ‘No. We only sprinkle them through occasionally’
“So, we are working with a property guardianship company, as around London there are empty buildings. While waiting for these properties to be redeveloped or demolished, landlords want tenants who can be trusted to look after their properties. This is where Cosmo steps in and we give women and men looking for a first job, usually in the creative arts, a chance to live in these houses at a reduced rate. When you are a Cosmo tenant, you pay the bare minimum and we ask that you share your skills with the local community.”
Storr is also adamant that her team and others in the magazine industry must feel the moral “duty” to fight to create a more diverse representation. She tells me of a stand-out experience that pushed her to champion diversity.
“Very early on in my career, I was freelancing at a magazine and I was sent out to do an interview and I had to collect case studies from people. One of my case studies was a Sri Lankan lady. My editor at the time read the copy and asked to see the accompanying pictures. When the picture of the Sri Lankan lady appeared on her screen, she started shaking her head and said, ‘No. We only sprinkle them through occasionally.’”
Taking a deep breath, Storr continues: “That was a woman from a different generation and, with the new wave of editors, I would like to think it shouldn’t be an issue.”
As we end our conversation over coffee, she reveals how she has retained her self-confidence as a woman of colour in an industry that has undeniable problems with forming a diverse employee landscape in terms of race and class.
“As an Asian woman, I always try to think I’m in these positions because I’m really good at my job and I’m not here because I’m ticking off a box.”