April 18, 2014

Does publishing have a gender problem when it comes to digital?


The tech guy, via Shutterstock

The tech guy, via Shutterstock

Top industry heads got together at the “Publishing for Digital Minds Conference” at the London Book Fair to discuss gender equality and whether women are being left out from the top roles in the industry.

The problem is, they couldn’t seem to agree whether or not the industry has a gender issue.

As The Bookseller reports, the discussion focused on digital roles and aimed to interrogate whether the tech jobs were going to the boys. Martha Lane Fox, a digital entrepreneur thought yes, arguing that because men dominate the technology industry, publishers recruiting for these roles are finding men to do the job.

But Rebecca Smart, who is CEO of Osprey pointed out that in the big four publishers, the top digital roles enjoy gender parity: there are women at the top at Penguin Random House and Pan Macmillan, while Hachette and HarperCollins’s digital teams are led by men. However she admitted that these roles might not reflect the lower rungs: “The digital teams below them might be a bit more skewed.”

Last year both CEO of HarperCollins Victoria Barnsley and Random House CEO Gail Rebuck were pushed from their jobs within days of each other. On Moby Lives Kirsten Reach asked “Are there any female CEOs left in the Big Five?” and found only two across the UK and the US.

The agent Claire Alexander argues that the problem actually lies with British culture, which is:

 “both sexist and ageist—and publishing is no different…Now Ursula MacKenzie [CEO at Little, Brown in the UK] 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”

You don’t have to be Sheryl Sandberg to know that women don’t have 50% representation on the boards of most industries. But where publishing differs is in its high number of women in the middle. As Annette Thomas CEO of Macmillan Science & Education remarked to the Bookseller: “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.”

If men are filling tech roles and women are more prominent, as Alexander says, in “traditionally women-dominated editor roles” then does the gender discrepancy actually reflect a clash of values?

Men coming from tech companies and from outside of the industry think they’re delivering some hard truths to an old-fashioned industry that has slept through the invention of the iPad; women who have been in publishing for their entire careers know the importance of author relationships and details that cannot be explained through big data, and they may be wary to engage.

You can see who would be more preferable to the owners of the publishing houses, and to their shareholders.

But banking on digital and its evangelists to re-invent publishing isn’t wise, especially as we’re seeing the leveling out of the growth in the e-book market. Far better to find individuals who can bridge the divide and are judicious about what it means to be digital, who are neither intimidated nor giddy.

As Canongate’s associate publisher Jenny Todd notes:

“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.”


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.