Can We Support Women Without ‘De-Supporting’ Men?
That’s a fairly ridiculous term, of course. “De-supporting.” Not an inaccurate one, though. And the reality is that we’re not questioning this these days.
During the Digital Book World Conference + Expo (DBW) earlier this month in New York — the first of the major industry-facing conferences of the year — one of the most anticipated panels was called Women at the Intersection of Publishing, Finance, and Tech. It featured five very strong women leaders in publishing today:
- Charlotte Abbott of Abbott Communications,
- Dominique Raccah (Sourcebooks CEO),
- Susan Ruszala (NetGalley president),
- Joanna Herman DeSilva+Phillips managing director), and
- Katherine McCahill (Apps Channel director with Penguin Random House).
The panel was predicated on a couple of things. DBW director Mike Shatzkin mentioned the swamp of shame and backpedaling that South by Southwest slogged through last year when it first tried to avoid and then embrace issues of women’s struggles online, particularly in the tech world. And Abbott then opened the panel by positioning women in publishing through the recent Lee & Low diversity study.
While the tech world is male-driven and does indeed present awful problems for many women trying to work that field, Lee and Low in January confirmed that publishing looks gratifyingly different:
Lee and Low puts women at 78 percent of the US industry. Slow down and get your head around this, it’s a key point: More than three out of four publishing workers in the States today are likely to be women. This reflects, in fact, the standard number of 80 percent cited in the UK. What’s more, as Abbott pointed out, Lee and Low sees 59 percent of leadership roles being held by women, so it’s incorrect to believe, as some do, that all executive-level jobs go to men in publishing.
Here is how Lee and Low reports it.
As an industry, publishing is white and female. At the executive level, publishing is 86 percent white, 59 percent female, 89 percent ‘straight/heterosexual,’ and 96 percent normatively-abled. At the editorial level, those numbers are virtually the same, except it is even more dominated by women. When 2015 Man Booker winner Marlon James controversially stated that ‘we writers of colour spend way too much time pandering to the white woman,’ he was more accurate than he knew: The ‘archetype of the white woman’ setting the tone for the industry is sitting behind 84 percent of editorial desks.
So the two major markets in the big English-language publishing world industry are, for the most part, deeply dominated by women. Nothing here is going to say that this is bad, far from it. But it’s important that we understand this, as you’ll see.
And none of this negates what the panel was doing at DBW. Its main focus was a bit different from ours today, but fully valid. As Kristine Hoang reported for the Digital Book World site, the DBW panel featured “female publishing executives discussing what it takes to grow their businesses while encouraging gender equality in all sectors of the business world.”
This touched, for example, on issues of discrimination when it comes to venture capital. Sarah Weinman at Publishers Lunch (paywall) highlighted Herman’s commentary on VC from her experience of founding the startup Librify. Weinman quotes Herman:
It played out most strikingly with the final fundraising round, when I was pregnant. I would get comments like, ‘You’re the first pregnant woman who has ever presented to us!’ That makes sense. It’s a reflection of who runs startups. Very few women do, and when they do, they aren’t necessarily having kids. All issues of pregnant women were brand new to [these men.]
And I liked the tack, especially, taken by NetGalley’s Ruszala (who is just this week launching the company’s new NetGalley.de in Germany). Ruszala said:
Work needs to change for both men and women. Our company is completely virtual. Families have a place in our business. When I think about what women can bring as leaders, I think of the creation of small cultures and developing something good for both men and women.
I’ve said to both Abbott and to Ruszala that publishing at least has the “right problem.” In a world in which most industries are under-representative of women, ours is over-representative of them.
But here we come to my provocation for you today. In an industry that has such a handsome lead in place for women in the workforce, do we not need to speak urgently about how this may impact the readership and consumer base?
Update: In response to some of the comments below, I think it might be helpful for me to take special care to clarify something. Causal blame is not part of this article. I do not mean that we should blame the dominance of women in publishing for the fact that men and boys don’t read more than they do. What I do mean is that the dominance of women in the publishing workforce may mean that the books business is not responding to the lag in male reading as aggressively as it could. Here’s a comparison: The UK industry is discussing whether entirely-female books divisions for children can produce material that will attract very young boys to reading. Could all-men departments get it right for girls? I doubt that, don’t you? That’s a good, healthy discussion, an important one. And if you simply must find blame in things, blame men who are not applying for jobs in children’s divisions, considering kids’ books to be “women’s work.”
Here is the point I’m actually making: Publishing desperately needs new readers. Digital has exponentially increased our output, I call it the Wall of Content. How will we find new readers for our glutted marketplace if we don’t reach out to the half of the population that isn’t reading at anything near the rate that women and girls are? That’s what I’m talking about. As children’s author Jonathan Emmett in the UK says, to be pro-boy is not to be anti-girl. Please try to think past the “blame” element. If you find it here, it’s all yours. I haven’t written it.