The parent trap

Are publishers’ policies on parental leave changing enough to ensure that women in publishing are not impeded, career-wise, after taking maternity leave?

I promised The Bookseller this article months ago. Sorry! But, you know how it is, things got in the way: two small children and an exciting new job being the most obvious obstacles in my case. Being a parent of small children is undoubtedly a juggling act and there are times when it can make you feel vulnerable and lacking in confidence. The feeling that you have too much on your plate isn’t something specific to pregnancy and parenthood but it can certainly exacerbate it and I don’t think publishing has always done as much as it could have done to support women at this stage.

In the past couple of years, however, I think there has been a subtle but marked shift. The power dynamic has always seemed to be such that women have feared telling their bosses that they are pregnant, felt nervous about their absence on maternity leave, and fretted about a lack of flexibility from the company and maintaining standards on their part on their return. HR bosses are undoubtedly making significant efforts. With the gender pay gap report and women speaking more openly about which companies offer what benefits, pressure has grown on publishers (the big houses, certainly) to at least be seen to be supportive. And yet we still observe a vast number of women leaving the business after having children.

Conversely, I have been buoyed by the fact that I have been employed twice now by companies willing to take me on while on maternity leave. The number of men taking up shared parental leave has definitely increased and there are women doing exciting and interesting things while pregnant, or on their return to work, which makes me believe there are reasons to be cheerful.

This year, Sam Eades was promoted to publishing director at Orion at a mere eight months pregnant, proving baby bumps need be no barrier to bumps in position. Madeline Toy, senior programme and project manager at Cheltenham Literature Festival, moved to be head of literature programming at Bath Festivals during her maternity leave. Lynsey Dalladay, director (author and marketing solutions) at Penguin Random House, left to set up her own marketing company after her first child and, two weeks after her second, swapped the leave entirely with her husband so that she could work on the myriad exciting projects that had come her way, including the small matter of a book by a woman called Michelle Obama. This is my cohort. I started out with these women and when I see them doing brilliant things, not despite their families but because of them, for them, I burst with sisterly pride and want to say: “Look! It’s possible!”

Making space

In her fascinating book, A Good Time to be a Girl, Helena Morrissey (she of nine children and hedgefund-c.e.o.- at-35 fame), following a disappointing situation early in her career, writes: “I needed to strategise more, not just wait for my contribution to be recognised.” This is where the power shift can happen. When company bosses see that women will not put up with short-termist and regressive thinking we can take a little more control of the conversation and what happens next.

I do not underestimate the effort this requires but there is a path being laid which I hope makes it easier for others. Publishing is a job that has a high emotional workload. The fact that, for most of us, our career overlaps with personal passion means that we care, deeply, for the work that we do, and many work long hours. The demand for “going above and beyond” is problematic at any age or stage, but can be especially difficult to manage when you are pregnant or have young children. It can make you feel like it is almost impossible to progress.

The savviest of company bosses are not looking just at this year’s gap fill, but how they will grow their company over five years, 10 years and beyond. Talent retention will always be at the very heart of that growth—retaining both talented authors and staff is key. With that perspective, the short-term inconvenience of maternity leave is a small price to pay for the potential commercial reward that comes from diversity of thought and having women remain in the business and progress to the top.

Thank you, Bookseller, for waiting. Good things come to those who wait.

Polly Osborn is the adult marketing and publicity director at Simon & Schuster UK.