Women in digital publishing

Women in digital publishing

Last Wednesday I spoke at an event called Women in Publishing, an organisation whose purpose is to ‘promote the status of women working in publishing and related trades by helping them to develop their careers’.

I’ll confess that before accepting I questioned the need for a women-only publishing organisation. I’ve worked in magazine and book publishing for over 15 years and I’ve always worked quite happily on equal terms with my male colleagues.

Nonetheless, I’m very glad I agreed and spent the evening in a room full of smart women in a very collegiate and supportive atmosphere.

So all this got me thinking, why do we need women-only events in an industry that seems to be one of the most evenly balanced women to men? Indeed in certain sectors, women are in the majority. Also men in publishing seem, on the whole, to be clever, socially liberal and (in most cases) could in no way be described as old-fashioned or sexist. 

Before the talk I posed a question on Twitter asking why there were more men in digital publishing than women – an assumption on my part that was soon proved wrong. I had many responses with people correcting me and pointing out that many of the senior digital people were indeed women. It became clear that there is near parity of numbers and seniority in digital publishing too. What became blindingly obvious is that the big issue for women in digital publishing is visibility.

It seems that the main difference between men and women working in this area is that the boys are doing a much better PR job on themselves. As a result it often appears that the digital debate is being had, and being led almost exclusively by men.

The numbers back this up. Taking the last three main digital publishing conferences, speakers at these conferences were predominantly male. 

FutureBook, December 2011 Ratio of Men to Women      4:1 

Tools Of Change, NYC Feb 2012 Ratio of Men to Women      4:1 

LBF, Digital Minds April 2012 Ratio of Men to Women      3:1

I don’t have figures for LBF and TOC but it’s interesting to note that for the Futurebook conference, which I organised in December, the delegates were split almost exactly 50/50 between men and women despite the fact that the ratio of male to female speakers was 4:1.

And yes, I take responsibility for this disparity. 

As we all know the purpose of speaking at an industry conference is not just to impart knowledge to one’s peers. It is to position yourself as a thought leader and hopefully as a side-effect increase your value in the work-place. 

I am not immune to this bias. I have 84 people on a Twitter list that, in my mind, represent globally the leading thinking in this sector. Again the ratio of men to women is 3:1. 

Even in the digital publishing start-up community those making the most noise in this sector, off the top of my head: Small Demons, Readmill, Flooved, Jelly Books, Bilbary, Anobii and Unbound, are all fronted by men.

So if the digital publishing community is pretty much equally split down gender lines, why are women not more visible? 

I guess some of the reasons for this inevitably revolve around the differing parenting roles and expectations placed on men and women. Doing a good PR job on yourself does take time and energy – preparing talks, travelling to conferences, meetings, socialising and networking. Promoting and maneuvering yourself within your company also takes time.  Something women won’t or can’t do, perhaps.

I’ve seen over and over again that often women in the industry will leave meetings and conferences on time to get home to their children when  men linger, go for a drink, network. I’m certainly not being critical here, as a single mother I’ve been forced to make these decisions myself and I understand these pressures all too well.

Anyone interested in the more subtle issues at play between the sexes professionally should watch Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook talk at TEDAs Sheryl says in her opening, women are having to make tougher decisions to balance professional success with personal fulfillment. 

As well as this, it might be controversial to raise the issue but perhaps we should address the language often used to describe women in senior positions. Publishing is not exempt from people using derogatory terms like ball-breaker, ice-maiden and – let’s be honest – much worse. This happens in the wider world of tech and media all of the time. In my mind, Arianna Huffington being a great example of a successful business woman being described in terms that would never be used on a man.

I can’t say that men are entirely to blame for this use of language as woman often perpetuate this. In a baffling lack of solidarity women are often each other’s toughest critics professionally.

In an industry that should be very aware of the impact of language this is particularly unacceptable.

So, I pose the question, do women have a responsibility to make themselves more visible and inspire other women in the industry? To actively support each other professionally?

In this instance I think the onus is on women themselves to make the change. Unlike a lot of industries, publishing is not actually one big boy’s club. Men are not holding women back. If visibility is the issue, and there is no obvious reason (family and childcare notwithstanding) for this lack of drive to push oneself forward, then it does seem to be entirely in the hands of the women of digital publishing – women are in a position to improve their standing and create their own platform as thought and industry leaders. How to do so, however? 

I think there are many ways we could make a positive impact and am open to your ideas. Two things came to mind:

(1)  Women in high profile roles in the industry have a duty to make themselves more visible by seeking out and making use of the myriad opportunities to speak and present and write about our industry and the challenges it faces. 

(2)  Women who are established in their publishing careers should make it a point to encourage, mentor and advise younger women in the industry to raise their profile and their voices with the same gusto the boys do. 

I would love to hear your views on the issues in this blog, please comment below or email me directly at sam.missingham@bookseller.co.uk