Women in publishing — achievements and challenges

Image - iStockphoto: XiXinXing
Image – iStockphoto: XiXinXing

Here is an important and sensitive subject, one that can become emotionalised — for perfectly understandable reasons.

Felicity Wood
Felicity Wood

As is made clear in The Bookseller’s 13th February edition, the UK publishing industry can be proud of a distinction many other businesses can’t claim: its women are in the forefront.

In their lead story, Felicity Wood (pictured right) and Sarah Shaffi (below right) look at how women are unable as yet to break through the proverbial glass ceiling to the top positions in major houses in the UK industry.

Sarah Shaffi
Sarah Shaffi

And yet  their work includes intriguing signals of the commanding presence women hold in the publishing workforce:

  • Eighty percent of Pan Macmillan’s staffers are female
  • Women sit on HarperCollins’ UK executive board
  • Penguin Random House UK has core divisions run by women
  • Hachette UK operates with women as division heads

And yet, as Bookseller editor Philip Jones writes in his lead editorial, Generation XX, the corner offices are still not available.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

“Out-baritoned” in Jones’ fine phrase, women are almost bafflingly still not in the top roles. It is, as he writes, something of “a wonder.” And not a happy one to any of us who cheer the formidable talents and skills that women bring to this business.

Women tend to dominate issues of The Bookseller…They also dominate the trade—from recent Booker winners, to bestselling commercial fiction, to agenting, to publishing, and finally (perhaps crucially) to readers. It is more of a wonder, therefore, that all of the chief executives running our major trade publishing businesses are men. As we note in this week’s lead story, women power this business, but it is the men who are at the wheel.

Baroness Gail Rebuck
Baroness Gail Rebuck

Baroness Gail Rebuck, in Reflecting on Women in Publishing, is sanguine about the situation, counseling patience and readiness:

There has been much hand-wringing about successive houses and conglomerates losing women m.d.s and c.e.o.s, to be replaced by men. While we have had a series of individual decisions and succession planning in publishing, these do not a crisis make. Women still flourish at divisional or imprint levels on both sides of the Atlantic—particularly at PRH—and often head key departments.

And my colleague Danny Arter’s comic-strip artwork for the cover of the edition brings a cool, insightful perspective to the current dynamic, a graphic rendering of how easily strong performance can be deflected.


‘A safe pair of hands, pal.’

In his depiction of the worthy division head Jane and the supervisor Carl who supports her bid for promotion, Arter shows us no ugly misogynist carping, no backroom snickers. Instead, all is played out in the rational rigor of corporate calm.

Once in the inner sanctum, Carl is told by a receptive but firm Moss-the-boss:

Carl, you know how much I admire Jane, but times have been tough lately…I think we ought to go for a safe pair of hands on this one, pal.

Nothing says “no way” in the executive suite like the fear of a financial fumble, especially in hard times (real or purported). Arter’s Men are not Mad. They’re scared.

Rebuck’s constructive perspective shows her a time not for disillusionment but for preparation:

Now is the moment to make sure we have the policies in place to ensure we encourage the women c.e.o.s of the future, and maintain publishing’s pioneering conviction that the creativity and innovation that powers any company’s growth depend on the diversity of its workforce.

Some might question whether gender diversity is achieved when four of five staffers of a major corporation are members of either sex. Is it possible that at some point, the term “gender diversity” has come to mean only advancement for women? Can the final result of such a goal be any better than the alternative?

Jones is ready, as are so many of us, for a clear-eyed view of the way forward:

First, we can do more to focus on those women who are already leaders within their respective groups—from Sara Lloyd to Susan Sandon, from Laura Meyer to Alison Goff—and make sure their voices are not out-baritoned. Second, publishing needs to be as flexible in how it treats its workforce as creative sectors should be, and use digital as an enabler. This is significant. This new world demands a new way of working, and makes different calls on those working within it. Decentralised working could be one answer, but not if it comes with an ”always on” mentality. Even progress needs to keep up.

And many good voices come to light in the critical effort to understand why we continue to see only “men at the wheel,” as Jones puts it.

Karolina Sutton
Karolina Sutton

Karolina Sutton at Curtis Brown points out:

Any board without a fair gender representation in an industry such as publishing—where we don’t lack amazing women who know the business inside out—is a failure on some level.

And what of effects on the industry’s output, the books? Could it be that women’s dominance — albeit without representation at the very top yet — could also have an inadvertent negative effect on parts of the readership?

Read More

By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook: Women in publishing — achievements and challenges

Read the full post at: TheBookseller.com/futurebook




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