UK publishing has been slow in making progress towards gender equality in the top roles, industry figures say, with some suggesting that the preponderance of men working in the tech sector has influenced publishers’ recruitment.
But an increasing number of women in high-profile digital publishing roles shows the industry is in a good position to challenge gender imbalance, others argue.
In a session at the Publishing for Digital Minds Conference at the London Book Fair, digital entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox highlighted the massive male dominance within the technology industry, quoting statistics suggesting women could make up just 1% of the tech industry by 2040 if current trends continue.
However, Annette Thomas (pictured), c.e.o. of Macmillan Science & Education, told The Bookseller that the increasing importance of digital skills within publishing was not responsible for the fact that industry leadership was “unbalanced” when it came to gender.
She said: “It’s already the situation that women aren’t properly represented at the highest level of business—whether it’s publishing or any other. You don’t see 50% representation of men and women at the top of any industry.
“This situation will continue to exist for some time. We’re not making steps forward, at least not at the rate we’d expect, given the predominance of women up to the middle ranks.”
Thomas said the issue was being “actively discussed” at her own company. But she added that it was “to do with society, how society perceives women and how women perceive themselves . . .”
Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander said there was a cultural problem in the UK, which she claimed is “both sexist and ageist—and publishing is no different”. She said: “Now Ursula MacKenzie is the only really senior woman in trade publishing, whereas in the US, for example, the four divisions of Penguin US—with Sonny Mehta, Gina Centrello, Maya Mavjee and Susan Petersen Kennedy heading them—illustrate gender diversity and age diversity,” she continued.
Alexander said she believed digital was “young and male”, but others disagreed, pointing to recent appointments. Rebecca Smart, c.e.o. of Osprey, said: “The top digital roles in the big four are 50/50—Hannah Telfer at PRH, Sara Lloyd at Pan Macmillan, George Walkley at Hachette, and Nick Perrett at HarperCollins. “The digital teams below them might be a bit more skewed. Publishing could be a good influence on tech—there’s no reason why it shouldn’t cross the other way,” Smart added.
However, a visibility problem—particularly when it comes to women in digital roles—was an issue that goes beyond publishing, said many in the trade. Smart said: “It may be harder to find women confident enough to step forward and make themselves heard, and doing that is part of being picked up for a leadership role. But publishing is so much better than other industries. Women in leadership positions need to encourage other women to step forward. But I don’t think it’s a big issue.”
Sophie Rochester, of digital publishing consultancy The Literary Platform, said that while women had been “well-represented in top-level digital jobs in publishing”, at digital conferences “it’s still always disappointing when women aren’t represented on panels”.
Males more vocal
One woman in a publishing start-up, who declined to be named, said that her “impression is that you tend to get the guys who work in digital being a bit more vocal and women taking more of a supporting role even if that doesn’t reflect how the work is being done”.
But Amanda Ridout, c.e.o. of Head of Zeus, said she did not think “we should play the gender game around digital”, citing successful publishers including Nosy Crow, headed by Kate Wilson, and Osprey.
“I can see a lot of boys in charge at the tech companies, but when you are trying to make a business and make money, women are very good at leadership and the business aspects, and melding the creative with business is crucial,” Ridout said. She added: “I’m passionately committed to making sure we have a good representation of girls at the top of the industry, because we know how to do it.”
Digital consultant Anna Rafferty, who left her role as m.d. of Penguin Digital in January, said gender imbalance in digital was a “tech problem, but publishing might be in a really strong position to beat it, due to the shape of the industry, [its] culture and content”.
Tide is turning
Alexander said the tide was turning back from digital developments towards content and the traditionally women-dominated editor roles, as publishers seek to differentiate themselves from what Amazon Publishing can offer.
“Amazon—being essentially a retailer—of necessity will always put consumers first and therefore be entirely market-driven in its publishing,” Alexander said. “Publishers, while mindful of the market, must be author-led because content is their game. Publishers may be waking up to this. We are not digital companies, we are publishing companies with a digital capability.”
Meanwhile, Jenny Todd, associate publisher at Canongate, commented: “All of the creative industries have evolved and changed in the digital landscape and anyone interested in their career has had to adapt and develop new skills. At Canongate there happen to be more women than men in digital-specific roles, however, everyone in the company has a digital role to play now anyway.”