Women working in publishing; Victoria Barnsley; and this year's Kim Scott Walwyn prize - Nosy Crow Skip to content
Posted by Kate, May 26, 2014

Women working in publishing; Victoria Barnsley; and this year’s Kim Scott Walwyn prize

Anne Perry (left) and Victoria Barnsley at the prize-giving for the Kim Scott Walwyn award

A couple of weeks ago – sorry, I meant to write this ages ago, but times are busy – the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize for 2014 was awarded. The prize celebrates the professional achievements and promise of women who have worked in publishing or bookselling in the UK for up to seven years. It went to Anne Perry. An American, like last year’s winner, she demonstrated remarkable range – she’s a writer, a founder of a literary award and a genre adult fiction editor. There were five women on the shortlist, one of whom, Melissa Cox, was, as Children’s Buyer for Waterstones, flying the flag for children’s books.

Anne spoke of this recognition of her achievements in the context of her mother’s academic and professional struggles. She said that, when her mother was in high school in 1965, she’d won a scholarship, but wasn’t told about it until two years later – long after it was too late for her to act on it. She challenged her school principal, who said that she hadn’t been told because she was just a woman and it wouldn’t have done her any good anyway: “This poor man, long dead, was terribly wrong not just about my mother, but about all of you here”.

I thought that it was interesting, and rather touching, that she spoke publicly, and emotionally, about her mother, who was at the event. She wasn’t the only shortlisted candidate whose parents were present. And I found myself wondering if young men in the same position would have been as willing to include their mums in celebrations of their professional achievements.

But the keynote was given by Victoria Barnsley, whose career in publishing has so far spanned being an entrepreneur and a corporate boss. In 1984, she set up Fourth Estate, which was acquired by HarperCollins in 2000. She became CEO of HarperCollins, initially in the UK, and, later, with a wider remit. She left HarperCollins in July of last year. During her time as CEO, Harper Collins was twice Bookseller Industry Award winner of the Publisher of the Year prize. She was the president of Publishers Association and chair of World Book Day. In 2009, she was awarded OBE for services to publishing. She was described by the woman who introduced her as “a beacon of what women can achieve”.

Here’s her own summary of what she said:

No one disputes that the publishing industry seriously over-indexes on gender balance but has this progress slowed or even stalled? We’re now seeing the sort of ratios in relation to gender balance at the top of publishing companies that we would expect in other sectors, but not ours – is this a fluke or the beginning of a trend? Is the shift in the balance of power related to the shift to digital?

If Martha Lane Fox’s statistics about the staggering dearth of women in tech companies is correct, (Victoria quoted Martha Lane Fox at the London Book Fair Futurebook conference as having said that, if trends continue as they are in the tech industry, by 2040 only 1% of the workforce will be women), it’s bound to have an impact .We know publishers are rightly supplementing their talent base by recruiting from tech companies. We know that tech companies are almost entirely male. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work it out. Personally, I believe that the increased recruitment from tech companies will have a detrimental effect on gender balance in publishing, and we haven’t seen the full impact yet.

I believe two other factors are negatively effecting gender balance, firstly what I call the corporate effect and, secondly, women’s own realisation that they can’t have it all.

The number of women on the top boards of companies at large is in inverse proportion to the size of the company. Look at the boards of the Footsie top 250. When the Davies review was launched a few years ago it discovered that only 7.8% of their boards were female and that more than half the boards didn’t have a single female director. There is plenty of evidence that gender balance in businesses cascades from the top. If the top board is largely the preserve of men, the likelihood is that the subsidiary boards will also be predominantly male. This is due to the cloning effect whereby CEOs and senior managers have a tendency to recruit in their own image.

With the increased concentration of publishing ownership in corporations I believe women will become more conscious of a glass ceiling than they did when publishing was in more fragmented ownership.

Women themselves are perhaps the biggest impediment to gender balance at the top.This could be because of their failure to “lean in” through lack of confidence or, more likely, simply their realisation that “having it all” in reality means “doing it all”. Women still pick up more than their fair share of child care and domestic duties. We are now seeing a second generation of women who are more reluctant to blindly pursue top jobs because of lifestyle choices. Yes, they want careers; yes, they want senior positions – but not necessarily the senior position and all that comes with it, particularly in a corporate environment.

For these three reasons, the digital effect, the corporate effect and women’s own lifestyle choices, I believe gender balance at the top of publishing is threatened. This is a great pity as we have never needed top female talent more. I’m not as bullish as some incumbents about the future of the publishing industry. I think that having a single dominant retailer (in physical as well as digital) and now a single dominant publisher is an unhealthy and dangerous state of affairs. In these difficult times, the industry has never been in greater need of talent, of leadership, and it would be a tragedy if it wasn’t sourcing that talent from the widest possible pool.

But rather than lamenting a lack of women at the top we need to be doing something about it. First, we need to be changing our businesses to accommodate women more. Businesses need to encourage leaders and corporate overseers to be more adventurous in recruitment, to step outside their gender comfort zones. All the evidence proves that companies with gender-diverse boards perform better. In fact having one single female director makes a company 20% less likely to go bankrupt and that percentage increases when there are more female directors. Second, businesses need to change their working practices. They need to respond to a world of total and instant connectivity by instituting more flexible working hours and abolishing an outdated meeting culture. Third, companies need to be less ageist. Publishing is missing out on a huge pool of post 50 women who would like to return to full time employment.

Women have always had a special place in publishing and they have had a profound effect upon our industry – women like Gail Rebuck, Helen Fraser, Ursula MacKenzie to name just a few. I see an equally talented group of women bubbling up to the surface today. For the sake of our industry we need to make room for them. We need to ensure that a good few of them are in CEO positions in major companies by the end of the decade. We need them.

And if they’re not there? Well, Martha Lane Fox’s advice to women in publishing was, “if you can’t beat them don’t join them”. In other words go and do your own thing. It’s tempting advice.

She also mentioned, that in January 2014, the Bookseller had devoted a section to publishing leaders’ views of the future of publishing. 13 people were interviewed, and none of them was a woman. She also pointed out that only one of this year’s Publisher of the Year shortlisted publishing houses at the Publisher of the Year Awards was run by a woman… though she also acknowledged that the publisher won. (It’s maybe worth pointing out that the company that won is one of a group of companies that is run in the UK by a man…)

She spoke with admirable honesty, I thought, of her personal experience as a “classic victim of the generation care squeeze”. She took on the HarperCollins CEO role when she had a seven year-old daughter and an 81 year old mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and spoke of juggling her professional responsibilities with 3am calls from her mother’s carer and helping her daughter with homework. She said, “My mum was sent into a home. My daughter went to boarding school. I am not sure that was best for any of us.”

She spoke of trying to persuade two of the women on her team to go for more senior roles. Younger than her, and both mothers, they were perhaps more aware that “having it all means doing it all”. Both women decided against pursuing promotion.

Four-and-a-half years ago, my climb up the corporate ladder abruptly stopped. It seemed to me unlikely that I would find another job, so, as Martha Lane Fox suggested, as I couldn’t join them, I didn’t join them, and I set up Nosy Crow.

I have touched on my sense that I wasn’t, in the end, a great fit in a senior corporate role in both this blog post about being fired, and the radio programme it’s written about. I remember, as I thought about what I was going to say in that radio programme, that I had heard, in the couple of weeks leading up to it, two women say that they had been fired from senior corporate roles because they were “too outspoken”, and I sometimes wonder if male bosses expect men and women to behave differently: the same behaviour can be seen as assertive and strong in men, but aggressive and bossy in women. Maybe some women can “lean in” a bit too much for the comfort of some male bosses.

When we set up Nosy Crow, we tried to avoid imposing corporate ways of working on staff. I wrote in this blog post about parents working at Nosy Crow, and in this one about working at home.

At Nosy Crow, our ratio of women to men is roughly 2:1. I’d be the first to acknowledge that our digital innovation was one of the things that drove the appointment of men, and the four most “techie” members of the team, in terms of their experience and job roles, are all men.

Today, knowing I was writing this, my older daughter said about balancing work and family, “I don’t intend to work for a corporation, so I would hope not to have the issues that people who aren’t self-employed have. The deal with being self-employed is that you can choose how much time you spend with your children, and how much time you spend on your work.”

And my younger daughter (the one I interviewed in the blog post I linked to above), said, “my perspective may change, but I don’t think that, when I start working I would be confident enough to set up on my own. After I’d gained more experience, though, I’d want my own company.”

Maybe the mantra for my daughters’ generation won’t just be “if you can’t join them, don’t join them”, but “if you can’t join them, beat them”. I rather hope so.

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