Reflecting on Women in Publishing

I have been reflecting on Women in Publishing (WiP), which was established in 1979, having completed two sets of interviews with Sarah O’Reilly at the British Library for the WiP archive. It is interesting how personal memories can be nudged by collective recollection and the perception of others.

Would we have invented WiP today? 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. They are the talent pipeline of the future. But 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. 

During the recent economic crisis, women in senior executive management pipelines in major companies outside of publishing declined, even when the number of non-executive directors held steady. I have no empirical data for this, but my sense was of an unconscious battening down of the hatches. At times of threat and uncertainty, it was as if boards or management committees fell back into familiar, “male-suited” patterns. 

When WiP was formed, it was all about breaking the glass ceiling. Well, we did it, but we often found that we did not arrive in a light, airy attic that was full of opportunity; rather it was a threatening, cobwebbed place where women were often viewed with suspicion and alarm. 

As the pace of change quickened and the complexity of managing an organisation increased, so did the stress levels at the top. Many women looked up and thought “not for me” and decided to stay, feet stuck to the floor, at an executive level they felt comfortable with. Mine was a generation that felt propelled to succeed without a road map, with few (if any) role models, often haunted by our mothers’ unfulfilled dreams.

Yet the generation spoken to by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In—the fortysomethings (and it is this generation that will arguably be the c.e.o.s of the future)—almost know too much. I have heard them called the “angst generation”, typified by the young woman who called on Sandberg for advice on her work/life balance before even having a partner, let alone a baby. Women are “leaning out”, as she says, only too aware of all the pitfalls and criticisms of working mothers, the inevitable stress and 
the impossible image of being the perfect executive leader and the perfect mother. 

A perfect storm

This may be one reason why women are sometimes stopping themselves before that last heave to the top. But corporations have a responsibility too, to stand against the creep of innate conservatism and any structural barriers to women’s advancement. 

Women need to inure themselves against the images of perfection they can never attain, listen to their passions and ambition, and trust their ability to negotiate a work/life balance—both at home and at work. Women should “lean in”, as Sandberg advises, and drop their inhibitions. Doing your authentic best and being good enough is probably an honourable goal. Organisations need to play their part by inspiring, training and facilitating women’s growth with mentors and sponsors. 

Perhaps women could also be guided by one of the best pieces of tongue-in-cheek advice I heard as a young student, from one of the few senior women in the City’s executive suites in the 1970s: “There will never be true equality in the workplace until there are as many mediocre women at the top of organisations as there are mediocre men!”

Baroness Gail Rebuck is the chair of Penguin Random House UK. Read more on women in UK publishing here.