Women in digital publishing

Last Wednesday I spoke at an event called Women in Publishing, an organisation whose purpose is to ‘promote the status of women working in publishing and related trades by helping them to develop their careers’.

I’ll confess that before accepting I questioned the need for a women-only publishing organisation. I’ve worked in magazine and book publishing for over 15 years and I’ve always worked quite happily on equal terms with my male colleagues.

Nonetheless, I’m very glad I agreed and spent the evening in a room full of smart women in a very collegiate and supportive atmosphere.

So all this got me thinking, why do we need women-only events in an industry that seems to be one of the most evenly balanced women to men? Indeed in certain sectors, women are in the majority. Also men in publishing seem, on the whole, to be clever, socially liberal and (in most cases) could in no way be described as old-fashioned or sexist. 

Before the talk I posed a question on Twitter asking why there were more men in digital publishing than women – an assumption on my part that was soon proved wrong. I had many responses with people correcting me and pointing out that many of the senior digital people were indeed women. It became clear that there is near parity of numbers and seniority in digital publishing too. What became blindingly obvious is that the big issue for women in digital publishing is visibility.

It seems that the main difference between men and women working in this area is that the boys are doing a much better PR job on themselves. As a result it often appears that the digital debate is being had, and being led almost exclusively by men.

The numbers back this up. Taking the last three main digital publishing conferences, speakers at these conferences were predominantly male. 

FutureBook, December 2011 Ratio of Men to Women      4:1 

Tools Of Change, NYC Feb 2012 Ratio of Men to Women      4:1 

LBF, Digital Minds April 2012 Ratio of Men to Women      3:1

I don’t have figures for LBF and TOC but it’s interesting to note that for the Futurebook conference, which I organised in December, the delegates were split almost exactly 50/50 between men and women despite the fact that the ratio of male to female speakers was 4:1.

And yes, I take responsibility for this disparity. 

As we all know the purpose of speaking at an industry conference is not just to impart knowledge to one’s peers. It is to position yourself as a thought leader and hopefully as a side-effect increase your value in the work-place. 

I am not immune to this bias. I have 84 people on a Twitter list that, in my mind, represent globally the leading thinking in this sector. Again the ratio of men to women is 3:1. 

Even in the digital publishing start-up community those making the most noise in this sector, off the top of my head: Small Demons, Readmill, Flooved, Jelly Books, Bilbary, Anobii and Unbound, are all fronted by men.

So if the digital publishing community is pretty much equally split down gender lines, why are women not more visible? 

I guess some of the reasons for this inevitably revolve around the differing parenting roles and expectations placed on men and women. Doing a good PR job on yourself does take time and energy – preparing talks, travelling to conferences, meetings, socialising and networking. Promoting and maneuvering yourself within your company also takes time.  Something women won’t or can’t do, perhaps.

I’ve seen over and over again that often women in the industry will leave meetings and conferences on time to get home to their children when  men linger, go for a drink, network. I’m certainly not being critical here, as a single mother I’ve been forced to make these decisions myself and I understand these pressures all too well.

Anyone interested in the more subtle issues at play between the sexes professionally should watch Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook talk at TED. As Sheryl says in her opening, women are having to make tougher decisions to balance professional success with personal fulfillment. 

As well as this, it might be controversial to raise the issue but perhaps we should address the language often used to describe women in senior positions. Publishing is not exempt from people using derogatory terms like ball-breaker, ice-maiden and – let’s be honest – much worse. This happens in the wider world of tech and media all of the time. In my mind, Arianna Huffington being a great example of a successful business woman being described in terms that would never be used on a man.

I can’t say that men are entirely to blame for this use of language as woman often perpetuate this. In a baffling lack of solidarity women are often each other’s toughest critics professionally.

In an industry that should be very aware of the impact of language this is particularly unacceptable.

So, I pose the question, do women have a responsibility to make themselves more visible and inspire other women in the industry? To actively support each other professionally?

In this instance I think the onus is on women themselves to make the change. Unlike a lot of industries, publishing is not actually one big boy’s club. Men are not holding women back. If visibility is the issue, and there is no obvious reason (family and childcare notwithstanding) for this lack of drive to push oneself forward, then it does seem to be entirely in the hands of the women of digital publishing – women are in a position to improve their standing and create their own platform as thought and industry leaders. How to do so, however? 

I think there are many ways we could make a positive impact and am open to your ideas. Two things came to mind:

(1)  Women in high profile roles in the industry have a duty to make themselves more visible by seeking out and making use of the myriad opportunities to speak and present and write about our industry and the challenges it faces. 

(2)  Women who are established in their publishing careers should make it a point to encourage, mentor and advise younger women in the industry to raise their profile and their voices with the same gusto the boys do. 

I would love to hear your views on the issues in this blog, please comment below or email me directly at sam.missingham@bookseller.co.uk




Excellent and thought-provoking post

TashaGoddard's picture

I think self-doubt is definitely an issue, but childcare will definitely come into it, too.

I run my own business, with my husband, but am looking at moving back in-house because I really want to be pivotal in the changes in the industry and can't really make that work in a small, home-based business. I want to be the one standing up and talking at these conferences within the next couple of years, not the one reading about them at my desk.

But... There is pretty much no way I would even be considering this, if I did not have a husband who currently shares all domestic and childcare responsibilities equally and is very happy to take over the bulk of them, while keeping the business running. If this were not the case, I would not be able to do it.

I don't think that the majority of men think that way, though fortunately it is becoming more and more acceptable for a man to take a share of the childcare and to arrange flexible hours to enable them to do so. But, for the most part, they will not bat an eyelid (or perhaps they are expected not to bat an eyelid?) at flying off to this conference and that conference and to stay behing networking after an event. 


Anyway, great post, Sam, thank you.

funnily enough...

for the past two L BF Digital Minds Conferences, I received a few  'no's , from men, declining to speak on a Sunday for  family reasons. I've never received this reason from a female.

In reply to MikeMurphy1979, as a conference designer, gender of speaker doesn't  usually feature: rather,  the role/company/topic/ability to speak engagingly. Where i might consider it, is for a panel, where, ideally there should be mix of folk, in terms of experince and attitude and gender might be included. 

Good topic Sam!


bookcareers's picture

This is not a new problem and sadly, the issue is much wider than publishing; it is common in nearly all industries.   I believe it is to do with conditioning and genetics, both male and female. I discussed this in more detail in a talk I gave to the same organisation as Sam (Women in Publishing) earlier in the year.  [this will link to an audio excerpt of the most relevant part http://www.bookcareers.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/WIPublishingSuzanneCollierEdited.mp3]

We (men and women) can all help the situation by being supportive and encouraging of our colleagues and working in a collaborative environment, where employees are encouraged to contribute and grow.   Also too, workplaces have to change.  Publishing is probably one of the most flexible for allowing people to work remotely (from home) but still many companies are of a culture where it is normal to work late. Men and women need a work-life balance of quality in order to sustain a demanding role.  Out of hours networking should not longer be the issue that it was as social networking brings us all closer together in the same enviroment. 

We are missing the point here

This post focuses primarily on the visibility of women at conferences and events. It’s a very small part of the conversation.   I think that we must consider the visibility of women inside their organisations and how they are leading and managing the process of change within their own teams and strategic business units.  This includes adopting and implementing technology, coaching and mentoring team members and taking key decisions which will have a direct impact on the profitability of their publishing house.  (It’s why we are all here, folks.)  Women are taking leading roles from the inside.  THIS is what’s really having an impact.  Not a 45 minute presentation that gets tweeted and forgotten. Change and innovation that happens in the day-to-day is what is transforming our industry,

It seems to me that the agenda for many male presenters at high profile digital conferences is about ego over “thought-leadership”.   Being frank, there really is not much new that has been said in the past 12 months.  Anyone calling themselves a “digital guru” can become one.  If the primary purpose of the conference circuit is truly about sharing knowledge and best practice, perhaps women are being more selective in the speaking engagements that they undertake for that reason.

The presentations and panel discussions that I have attended where digital women were presenting have always offered something genuinely new and thought-provoking.  People like Rebecca Smart and Theresa Thompson are shining examples.  They are women who are truly leading and inspiring from within their companies and that’s where it matters most.

Kelly Jennings-Robinson

Agree...to a point

Sam Missingham's picture

I can see that women are certainly leading from within publishers and yes that is having impact on their business. Absolutely.

Although I think speaking at conferences is more than presenting for 45 minutes and it being tweeted and forgotten. Speaking, blogging, commenting in articles, tweeting and being part of the global discussion offers much more than that.

As an individual, I genuinely believe this increases your employability, standing and earning potential. I know many of my bloggers and FutureBook speakers are then flown around the world to speak at other events or asked to do research, write reports and offered other work.

And these then offer all kinds of opportunities for networking and raising your company profile amongst people you may never have had access to. As well as gaining ideas from other publishers in other markets. And inspiration to drive change and innovation within your company.

My view is that women should be as confident to call themselves commentators, opinion-formers as the men are. Is 'ego' all bad? One could argue nurturing 'Brand Me' is the most valuable thing people can do professionally.

Anyway, really interesting points, Kelly.

Glad the post struck such a chord with women & men.



I blame...

Nick Harkaway's picture

...the schools...

Sort of. Maybe I blame the culture of the 20th Century. Here's what I mean:

I went to a small North London public school - UCS - which produces a lot of media types - China Miéville, Rupert Goold, Will Self, and Alex Garland (oh, and Ford Maddox Ford. I had no idea.) But wherever its alumni go, and whatever they do, they carry with them an above average grip on the skill of flannel. It's an accepted part of the classroom to try to bluff, to play with ideas out loud. At least when I was there, it was understood that there would inevitably be questions in exams and so on which you simply had no answers for, and the only thing to do, once you'd exhausted the other options, was to twist the discussion towards your own agenda. If that failed, take a swing - produce something good enough, and you might get points for effort. Or you might con a bewildered examiner into awarding points. (This was pre-Google - fact-checking required a considerable effort.)

The attitude at the girls' schools I came into contact with was quite different. The emphasis was on study, precision, accuracy, and safety. You didn't put yourself on the line unless you knew you could defend every aspect of your position. Perhaps it was because the UK attitude to educated women was still pretty uneven (we're talking the late 80s here, and remember the last Cambridge College to admit women at undergraduate level was Magdalene, which refused to do so until 1988) and therefore the teachers themselves were used to being challenged or dismissed in conversation and therefore had come to treat their knowledge and position more like a castle under siege than a playing field.

I dunno - is that, or something like it, still operative? Do we live with the consequences of it a bit?

My daughter

Sam Missingham's picture

age 11 had 'life skills' lessons yesterday, am now wondering if 'flannel skills' would have been more useful. Apart from loving that expression, I absolutely agree with your point.

Some of this conditioned behaviour happens even before school. And from parents too. 

My experience of studying Maths at University included similar experiences. A class of 80 less than 10 being female. My tutor called me Mr Miller (maiden name) as it was all boys apart from me. And expectations of girls studying Maths? School teacher, first. Accountant, second. (nothing wrong with these professions, but the expectations of the boys were much loftier).

But geniunely feel we have come a long way since then. And you are right to point out these shifts have all happened relatively recently. 

Yes, It Is Our Responsibility

Yes, the number of women relative to the number of men on digital publishing panels is lower, but when you look at digital publishing as a whole, there are a lot of women involved...at very high levels (think Sara Lloyd, Madeline McIntosh, Dominique Raccah, the vast majority of the Harlequin/Mills and Boon teams...to name a few). One thing I learned -- and a Clay Shirky article I can't locate right now really solidified my thinking on this -- is that women often expect to be noticed for their efforts while men will speak up about their successes (and failures, to some extent).

To me, this means women need to take the initiative when it comes to public speaking or pimping products. Yes, sometimes we get chosen because we are the right person and someone else thinks of us, but it's incumbent upon us to put forth the effort to propose workshops, panels, discussions, demonstrations. Miral Sittar from Bibliocrunch is a very high profile bookish startup, and I think she does a great job of this. Maya from MemeTales is also a great example of a woman heading up a bookish startup. Likewise for Erin McKean of Wordnik.

(The first big panel I put together at TOC/NY was all female. A bookseller panel I did was 90% female. The first panel was all about the female reading experience. That there were so many females on the second was because the voices that spoke the loudest on the issues I wanted to convey were...women.)


Sam Missingham's picture

agree with you. There is certainly not a shortage of great women in digital publishing, quite the opposite. But the number who are pushing themselves/their companies forward is fairly limited. Great examples that come to mind are Rebecca Smart of Osprey, Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, Anna Rafferty from Penguin and of course Dominique.

I also agree that women expect (hope) to be noticed for efforts and men are happy to stand up and tell everyone about theirs. Other women have suggested that we naturally have more self-doubt than men - and worry that by speaking at conferences they will be 'found out' for the things they don't know yet. These are subtle, but important differences between the sexes. And in my mind they all play their part in this disparity.

And yes, publishing is better than most industries, but think we can still keep working towards equal standing in all areas.



Additional experiences

Sam, you're absolutely right to point this out. I suspect part of the problem is that in the world of tech, the average conference will see gender ratios in panels more like 10:1 or even 15:1. You add the 1:1 in publishing, and the 4:1/5:1 ratios you see in the future of publishing (which are effectively tech plus publishing conferences) look "normal."

Of course it shouldn't be normal. Herewith two notes:

1. Small Demons has four co-founders, two of whom are women, the Chief Technology Officer and the Chief Architect. Though it's true that the CEO and myself are the two most visible folks. The most important thing is of course that womean be equally represented in leadership positions. Let me say though that you can count the number of women CTOs at leading start-ups on the fingers of a two-fingered sloth.

2. When organizing a panel at Book Expo America on discoverability and serendipity, I was tunred down by four women—one of whom was scheduled on another event, but three of whom simply passed. Leaving me with a three-man panel. For which I apologized. Wat we had there, though, was women in leadership positions turning down visibility gigs.

I suppose all I can say is: we all have to try harder and harder, again and again. We all lose through this poor representation, women in losing visibility, men in not hearing from the silent talented ones.

Old school apprenticeships?

saraathotkey's picture

People in publishing often wax lyrical about the good old days where editors would learn from a long hard slog of apprenticeship under a legendary editor. Let's bring that back!

Now that you've established that there are plenty of women out there doing amazing things in digital, let's start connecting them to other people.

Events like the one you've just attended, plus the one we're hosting on Wednesday, are places where it is already happening that people (not just women) interested in digital are coming together and sharing learning.

Just as women at the top of their game have a lot to offer, those who want to learn should put in the time and work to get these innovators together, in front of an audience. If we want more women on panels... we should just make those panels happen.

Sara O'Connor, Editorial Director, Print & Digital, Hot Key Books

Very thought provoking

Very thought provoking article Sam. Suppose some of this could be said across many industries. Does it speak more about the gender or about society? 

where are the women?

Great piece, Sam - I think you've answered your own question, though.  You've noted that women leave networking events to get home to their children, and then you mention "personal fulfillment."  As if a family was a yoga class or something.   Somewhere in this picture, someone else has offloaded the responsiblity for the family's day-to-day care.

And then, this bit: "Publishing is not exempt from people using derogatory terms like ball-breaker, ice-maiden and – let’s be honest – much worse."  Which means that somewhere in the picture, someone has given the impression that if a woman succeeds nobody will like her...and being liked is everything, of course.  

I've yet to see Victoria Barnsley or Gail Rebuck or, in earlier times, Carmen Callil or Liz Calder buying this cr*p but., as a mother with a grown up daughter, I still hear it from her and her friends.  Sometimes I think that all women in the workplace need is constant Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, hourly realty checks and pay rises - lots of them.

yours in sisterhood,



Go find 'em

mikemurphy1979's picture

This probably reflects my own prejudices here, but I can't help but think that we're thinking this divide into existence. Is personal PR not an individual thing, reflecting personality over gender?

Maybe there's a need for conference programme designers to actively seek out women contributors to give the many influential and brilliant women in the industry the platform they might feel is otherwise off-limits.

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