'What is vital is for women not to pull the ladder up behind them'

Like many, I read the recent article, ‘Are things getting worse for women in publishing?’ (Guardian, 11th May) with enormous interest. It is self-evident that we have a long way to go until we reach equality for all, but anonymous, anecdotal evidence really is the bluntest of instruments from which to draw any meaningful conclusions.

What are we measuring this worsening against? The data on which this article is based seems at best extremely limited. It references a US survey about gender; no UK equivalent is available. The salary survey quoted shows the gender gap starting to close, before opening incrementally in 2013, but again, there is no data given beyond that.

Graduatejobs.com estimates that the average starting salary in London in 2017 is £19,000– £22,000. This year, Hachette’s lowest starting salary across the group is £23,000. In 2015, new rights were introduced allowing 50 weeks of parental leave to be shared between caregivers—a step in the right direction for women who have felt held back by maternity leave.

The article goes on to lament the lack of female c.e.o.s at the “Big Three”. Let’s leave aside the fact that’s just three jobs out of thousands. Helen Fraser (who retired in 2010), Gail Rebuck (who stepped back in 2013) and Ursula Mackenzie (who retired last year) were all trailblazers and we owe them a massive debt. In my view, they have been succeeded by equally forward-thinking men: Tom Weldon and David Shelley. And, yes, they are younger, but that also brings with it a generational and attitudinal drive for change that we truly need. They are both using their positions to take real action to improve publishing for all, spearheading multi-ple diversity and inclusion programmes at PRH and Hachette respectively, helping to establish higher starting salaries across the industry, and driving paid work experience and internships.

Does the sector really look worse, less welcoming, to women and “outsiders” under their aegis? Against which high watermark? At Hachette, the diversity group is made up of more than 90 people from across the group and at all levels of the business. It is open to all the ideas come from everyone, and all voices are equal. At a global level, 50% of women on Hachette Livre boards worldwide are women. I love Victoria Barnsley, my former c.e.o. at HarperCollins, as much as the next person, but she literally lives in an actual castle—not something that is within touching distance for many of us.

Indulge me in my own anecdotal evidence when I say that most people I’ve met come into publishing because they love books. How many people actually want to be chief finance officer of a corporate publisher? It’s certainly true that the higher you go, the further you get from what brought you into the job in the first place. That in itself is a choice. Our conversations need to be focused on how we create a working environment and culture that truly supports people in their choices.

When David Shelley approached me about the Orion job, he knew that I had very young children, and he has given me all the latitude I need for a meaningful work/life balance, including flexibility around my core office hours and never so much as an eyebrow raise about a class assembly or a raging bout of norovirus.

What is vital is for women not to pull the ladder up behind them, but to support others to similarly feel they can achieve anything. I am currently mentoring five women, including one through our parental mentoring scheme and one through our diverse future leaders programme. It is bloody hard to keep pushing, and a million times harder if you can’t see that anyone like you has found their way through, but I do believe that publishing is continuing to change for the better.

There are plenty of positive role models at all levels, at corporate and indie publishers; as well as in the writing and agent communities. It is absolutely not easy, and there has to be a will to engage with the things that still need to change. But crucially, we must also take the message to women that you don’t have to be c.e.o. to effect real change. The next generation of women coming through is amazing - let’s do all we can to give them a hand up.

Katie Espiner is m.d. of Orion.