Pinch of dough

The book trade’s latest gender pay gap reports bring with them little to cheer. As with 2018’s numbers, the data shows that women dominate, but take home less pay. Only one of the 20 book businesses I looked at recorded a pay gap in women’s favour at both the mean and median measures; further there remain only two where women do not make up the rump of the lowest paid and only nine where they outnumber men at the top.

It is worth recalling what we said last year when we addressed the subject in this space—not once but twice, the first to express surprise, the second to deliver our verdict. "Something is either holding women back, or not rewarding them appropriately," we argued, before suggesting that senior publishers should spend less time watching how we report the numbers, and perhaps put more effort into putting "their promises into action".

There has been some progress, of course. No one likes to be called out for unconscious or even conscious bias, and it is clear from the commentary that accompanies these statistics that many of the larger publishing groups and retailers have put in place programmes that must, over time, redress the balance. It is, too, worth remembering that this year’s numbers reflect a snapshot of April last year, obviously too soon for any initiatives taken last time around to have made much of a difference. We are thus reporting via a time lag, where action taken may not yet be visible.

Still, should we be surprised by the lack of improvement? Of the 20 businesses I looked at, seven reported that the gender pay gap at both the mean and median measure had lessened—but four businesses reported no improvement at all. Though the book sector compares favourably with the overall UK average, the average differentials across this sector have actually worsened. Remove distribution companies and retailers from these numbers, and the statistics worsen again. Publishing on its own remains deeply unbalanced. Most worryingly, there are still more men in the top pay quartile than women, and in fact fewer women in that pay grade than a year earlier.

Book trade bosses will argue, and perhaps rightly, that beneath the data there is much work going on, some of it already translating into real movement. In that regard many of these businesses should be applauded; they are not ducking the fight, merely taking their time over it. Yet I cannot help but feel that publishing tends to look fairer when surveyed from on high; that, as some Waterstones booksellers have indicated in recent weeks, the view from the bottom is not improved by explanations from the top.

Privately, people speak of their frustration that the language of change does not result in actual change, of the unmetered rise of men (as editor-turned-author Dan Mallory has come to symbolise), and the struggle of women to be heard in the boardroom. It’s no surprise that initiatives such as FLIP (Female Leadership in Publishing) and networking event Conduit have launched to such pent-up demand. The pay stats only tell half a tale, but to get to the rest, we need to turn the page.