When Edie and Eddie started work as junior editors in the same corporate book publisher, they had much in common: firsts from Oxbridge and career ambition. And a passion for books and ideas. When Edie saw her role model moved out of the chief executiveâ€™s office to be replaced by a man, the two joked about what it took to get to the top.
But as both observed the same thing happen at one publishing house after another, the joke wore thin. And Eddie, frustrated at the lack of promotion, changed. â€œHe donned a suit and began to walk and talk like the men he saw getting on in the business and suddenly things changed for him,â€ Edie recalls. â€œIt was as simple as that.â€
To her, it seems that â€œall you need to get on now is to be a suited and booted man, who looks like he has an MBA. They remind me of David Cameron and George Osborne. All of them are white, middle class and presentable.â€ She pauses. â€œAnd male of course, which is definitely something I cannot aspire to be.â€ (Edie and Eddie are not real names, but like many of the people interviewed for this piece, Edie did not wish to be identified.)
This is a harsh assessment of UK publishing; an industry that had comforted itself that the one area of diversity it need not address was gender. A 2016 survey of the gender divide in US publishing found 78% of the industry is female (no UK-wide survey has yet been done). But the same survey found that, at executive or board level, 40% of respondents were men. And Edie is not alone in the frustration she feels over the split at board level: there is growing disquiet among the rank and file.
This is not to say that women have left the boardroom completely. But, as one senior female editor notes, women such as Random Houseâ€™s Gail Rebuck, Penguinâ€™s Helen Fraser, Macmillanâ€™s Annette Thomas and Little, Brownâ€™s Ursula Mackenzie, who had all embodied the ideal that women publishers faced no glass ceiling, have in the last five years all been replaced by men. â€œThere is a problem, because you get the sense with the remaining women in senior management that they have gone as far as they are going to go, and in every case they are answerable to clean-cut, fortysomething men,â€ the editor adds.
The disquiet felt within publishing is not just about the higher echelons becoming as white, male and middle class as other industries, but that the sector looks less welcoming to outsiders, be they female, Bame (black, Asian and minority ethnic) or disabled. And, as a creative field, publishing has grown on the back of entrepreneurs and visionaries. â€œPublishing should be about new ideas, about difference and innovation, but these men are all about the optics,â€ says another female publisher, who works in the middle ranks of one of the big three houses. â€œThey seem to be chosen because they look good on a corporate prospectus rather more than anything else. Even the great men of publishing â€“ the Victor Gollanczes, Allen Lanes and Andre Deutsches â€“ would not have fitted in to this world.â€
Though half the boards of the big houses are comprised of women, in almost every case, they are in charge of more traditional roles: publishing, communications, human resources or educational divisions. Look at the magical â€œc-circleâ€ of group chief executive, group chief operating officer and group chief finance officer â€“ where the real power lies â€“ and women are notably absent.
Publishers say this is simply down to a generation of women retiring and the amalgamation of publishing houses, which has left fewer c-circle jobs to compete for. It certainly does not mean women are losing ground. â€œIn the bigger corporate publishing houses, the divisional managing directors, who are the people making the publishing decisions, many are women,â€ says Lis Tribe, group managing director for Hodder Education, part of the Hachette UK group. â€œThere are five [female] divisional managing directors or chief executives at Hachette and six [divisions] are run by women at Penguin Random House (PRH).â€
Tribe, who has recently taken the presidentâ€™s role at the Publishers Association, is adamant there is no problem with women getting to the top. Others disagree. â€œYeah, right!â€ laughs one woman who asked to be unnamed, having left corporate publishing to set up her own business. â€œThere is also a tendency that we tend to recruit in our own image,â€ she says. â€œYou have a lot of white, middle- and upper-class, privately educated men selecting other white, middle-class, privately educated men now. It has a chilling effect.â€
There is a persistent gender pay gap in publishing, which in the last survey by Bookcareers.com was revealed to be 16% in the UK. This is regarded as evidence that men take a disproportionate number of higher paying executive roles to women. â€œI find it really depressing that after all these years we are still having the same conversations about pay and diversity. Nothing has changed,â€ says Bookcareers.comâ€™s Suzanne Collier.
Simple sexism is not the sole cause of the problem: mergers have left most of British publishing in the hands of three large, global media companies â€“ Hachette, Bertelsmann-owned PRH, and HarperCollins, which is part of Rupert Murdochâ€™s News Corp empire. This has not just left fewer influential jobs for women, but has led to a change in the kind of beast who does rises to the top. Kate Wilson, who set up independent childrenâ€™s publisher Nosy Crow after leaving Hachette-owned Hodder seven years ago, sums it up: â€œIn my 30 years in publishing I have seen the corporatisation of publishing and it is not helpful to women.â€
But sexism is there. â€œThere is a point in womenâ€™s careers where, if they have kids, they are sidelined,â€ Wilson says. Because publishers are now making it into management at a younger age, at the critical point when the top tier opens up, many women are taken out of the career loop by children, leaving men to leapfrog them. On their return, they are usually juggling childcare and work in a way that many of their male contemporaries are not. â€œWhat is a farce is that at the same point, in your 30s and early 40s, men still seem to be untrammelled by family life and that helps in their careers,â€ adds Wilson, who made it a central aim of Nosy Crow to encourage flexible working â€“ and the majority of her staff are now female.
But corporate publishingâ€™s loss has been independent publishingâ€™s gain. Wilson is among a band of women who have started independent businesses that not only allow them to better juggle professional and home commitments, but also to exercise their creativity in a way the tiers of management in global businesses do not allow. It is one of the reasons that the most interesting and innovative books coming out are from independents â€“ whether Juliet Mabey at Oneworld with her Booker winners Marlon James and Paul Beatty, the translated fiction choices of Meike Ziervogelâ€™s Peirene Press or Miranda Westâ€™s Do Books Companyâ€™s publishing list, based on the Do Lectures â€œencouragement networkâ€.
â€œIt is an interesting opportunity for independents like us because we are able to take account of some of the other things that women want to do, such as working part-time or more flexibly,â€ Wilson says. â€œThe number of talented women who have been wasted because they canâ€™t find a role in corporate publishing is astonishing.â€
- This piece was amended on 11 May 2017 to clarify the difficulties faced by women returning to work after having children.