Let's use innovation to help fix diversity's publishing problem

Let's use innovation to help fix diversity's publishing problem

It’s a golden age for innovation in publishing. Advancing technology offers us huge potential to experiment, try new things and reach new audiences. But innovation isn’t about novelty, it’s about solving problems. And publishing’s got some serious problems.

As an industry, we’re battling for people’s time, attention and money in a fast-moving, competitive landscape. However, not all our problems can be solved by new products, markets or business models.

Take publishing’s problem with diversity. It’s not a new problem by any means, but at the moment there’s a wealth of ideas, initiatives, and a lively debate about what should be done to promote equal opportunity and encourage participation of everyone in society in publishing – see this recent article by Arifa Akbar in the Guardian.

The diversity of both speakers and audience members at FutureBook 2017 a couple of weeks ago was certainly heartening. The FutureBook Awards celebrated some of the leaders of this fight, with Nikesh Shukla and Julia Kingsford winning the disruptor of the year award for the Good Journal and the Good Agency, Siena Parker being shortlisted for her work championing diversity at Penguin Random House, and 404 Ink being highly commended for its campaign to promote Nasty Women.

However. Before we sit back and relax, we need to give the various diversity-focused projects proliferating in the UK book trade best chance of success. That’s where innovation can help.

Innovation is a process as well as an outcome – its tools and techniques can help to generate, build and support ideas. The process of innovation starts by defining the problem.

Two years ago, I came face to face with the issue of diversity at FutureBook 2015: I was the only female founder pitching my startup in the BookTech competition alongside seven male founders. I wrote an article saying that BookTech had a problem with women. This pitch competition was a stark example of the lack of diversity in startups, a situation where women are underrepresented at all levels, and where only 9% of investment in the UK goes to female-founded startups.

This isn’t just a moral imperative. The evidence shows that gender equality is great for business – research by Cranfield on FTSE 100 firms found that those “which showed greater gender diversity are more profitable and that those with women on their board also enjoyed higher market valuations.”

Thankfully, once you define and acknowledge a problem, you can come up with solutions. My approach was to call for more women to start up and step up. It was a ‘top of the funnel’ approach – using the hypothesis that by getting more female-founders to start businesses and share their ideas, it should increase the number of women who go on to become CEOs, mentors and investors.

After proposing a solution, the next step is to test it and measure the results.

So, two years on, has anything changed? This year’s BookTech saw five females and two males pitching. Result! Problem solved, equality sorted, high fives all round.

The BookTech 2017 finalists

Does one pitch competition mean we’ve solved the gender imbalance within startups? Of course not. It’s a nice case study, but there’s not enough evidence to show there’s been any real change. Especially as my rallying call didn’t offer any positive action to encourage women to start their own business or support in helping them to build them.

So back to the innovation process. Once you have tested an idea, you iterate and test improved hypotheses until you find something that works. That means that some things won’t work – failure is an essential part of the cycle. When ideas fail, we need to accept the data, understand where it went wrong, and take the opportunity to learn and improve; and most importantly keep on trying to solve the problem with new ideas.

So, if my solution wasn’t conclusive, what other ideas can be offered to increase the pipeline of female founders? How about quotas?

Quotas were quite the hot topic of the conference this year. Quotas are contentious: they smack of interference and meddling, stopping the best candidates getting the job and belittling the skills and achievements of those on the receiving end of positive discrimination.

But we need to do more than just slam quotas with a couple of personal anecdotes. We must take the emotion out of the debate, stop with the headline-grabbing opinion and get some solid evidence to see whether they work or not.

Data will help us to decide what makes the difference to complicated systemic inequalities in the long-term. We need to make a concerted effort to gather and analyse it as we put diversity initiatives in place, so we can test and tweak our approach.

In terms of the innovation cycle we’re at the stage of multiple ideas. While we should certainly celebrate this flourishing of initiatives, we can’t afford to get complacent. History shows that hard won equalities can be easily lost. Just because BookTech was more gender balanced this year, doesn’t mean to say it won’t revert to male-dominated type next year.

Back in 2015 I called for more women to start up and step up. This year I’m calling on everyone to step up, because we all have a role to play in finding and supporting solutions to publishing’s diversity issue.

Some of us can call attention to the problem – identify and define it. Others can generate ideas. Those in positions of power and authority have the money and resources to make those ideas happen.

All of us can join in the debate – using facts rather than opinion. And when initiatives fail, we should learn from what happened and strengthen our resolve to keep trying and testing new solutions.

Innovation thrives in challenging times. I know that publishing is up for the challenge and that together we can find the best solutions to the problem of diversity. Let’s turn the innovation lens not just on new ways to tell stories and distribute and sell books, but on creative ideas for how to make a measurable difference in diversity.