Return to the glass ceiling

First published in Mslexia Summer 2015MadMen-boardroom_2886698b

The silent takeover by men of the top jobs in publishing matters to us all, says Danuta Kean

The battle for equality can feel like waiting for a bus: you wait forever and then suddenly a tranche of women smash through the glass ceiling. But recently in publishing some of us have felt like the route has been changed and no one told us, so we are stuck waiting at the wrong stop. Since 2008 a 20-year period in which women rose to the most senior positions in the industry has ground to a halt: in the top three corporate publishers women group CEOs and MDs have stepped aside to make way for men.

At Penguin, in 2009 Helen Fraser, the much admired managing director, retired and was replaced by Tom Weldon, who became CEO under a restructure. A year earlier, Brian Murray replaced Jane Friedman as president and chief executive of HarperCollins Worldwide. In July 2013 a bad few weeks for women in publishing was marked by news that Random House chair and chief executive Gail Rebuck was stepping down from the day-to-day running of the company to be replaced as CEO by Tom Weldon, following the merger with Penguin. The following day at HarperCollins a bloody month for CEO Victoria Barnsley ended with her replacement by ex-army Old Etonian Charlie Redmayne – half brother of Oscar winner Eddie.

That year was a watershed in the retreat of women from power in the British book trade: just before Rebuck and Barnsley moved aside, Kate Swann, the much admired CEO of W H Smith, resigned after turning the beleaguered book and stationery giant into a shareholder powerhouse. Earlier, Marjorie Scardino had retired from the driving seat at Pearson, which owns a 47 per cent share in the merged Penguin RH group. Both Swann and Scardino were replaced by men.

Of the remaining high profile women chief executives at publishers, Ursula Mackenzie has announced that she would step down from her role at Little, Brown on 1st July to become chairman of the company – a role she will rescind on retirement in 2016. As with the other women at the top who have departed, a man – David Shelley – will succeed her as CEO. It has left Annette Thomas CEO of Macmillan Science and Education looking lonely.

Next generation

Of course, there are women in senior executive roles within publishing: a recent report in The Bookseller noted that: Hachette UK, parent company of among others Orion, Little, Brown, Hodder & Stoughton and Headline, has six female divisional heads; five core divisions at Penguin Random House are headed by women; and four women sit on HarperCollins UK’s executive board. But when one considers that the vast majority of those working in publishing are women – the same report stated that 80 per cent of Pan Macmillan staff are women – anything less than 50 per cent of a board or executive board line up is unrepresentative. Dotti Irving, CEO of Four Colman Getty, sums up how many women in publishing feel about the situation: ‘I don’t see the next generation of women coming through. Depressing but true.’

Founder of Nosy Crow Kate Wilson sees the departure of these high profile women from the most senior posts as a loss to women nt just the industry: ‘Whatever the reason [for their departure], it’s a pity,’ says Wilson, who set up Nosy Crow after a career in corporate publishing. ‘I think it was great for women in the industry to have role models right at the top as we did when Gail Rebuck, Victoria Barnsley and Helen Fraser were really visible.’

For Wilson these three female players were significant not just because of their gender but because they challenged the idea that women would be held back by ‘the pram in the hallway’: ‘All of them, as it happens, have children, so, as a mother, I personally found it inspiring that there were women who had managed, seemingly successfully, to achieve some sort of balance between family life and work life.’

What has led the reversal of fortune for women at the highest level of management is, according to some industry insiders, agglomeration: simply put more UK publishing houses now reside in the hands of just three companies – Penguin RH, HarperCollins and the mothership of them all Hachette UK.

As well as leaving fewer senior roles to compete for, agglomeration, posits agent Clare Alexander of Alexander Aitken Associates, has brought a return to traditional management. ‘As ownership of publishing houses has been consolidated in fewer hands, larger corporate entities might default to a more traditional male management style,’ she explains. A veteran of Penguin and Macmillan, where she was editor in chief, before becoming an agent in 1998, Alexander has seen corporate publishing up close.

Part of the reason we have not seen more women break through to the chief executive role is structural, she believes. ‘Women have tended to work on the creative side of the industry, especially in editorial and publicity, and in larger organisations over the last decade these roles were frequently required to report in to a new echelon of professional managers who have often come up via sales or marketing, which tend to be more male bastions.’ She adds: ‘Perhaps this male bias has been exacerbated by the perception that the future of publishing was dependent of digital – an area that skews young and male?’

Certainly, recent attempts to improve diversity within publishing have focused on recruiting from non-traditional university courses. This has had a material effect on the status of women in the industry: out are the Oxbridge gals with firsts in Eng Lit and a post-grad MA in publishing from Oxford Brookes, in are bright young non-Russell Group graduates with degrees in social networking and IT.

Unintended consequences

Could women have fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences? Take for example Hachette UK, which has launched a much-praised scheme to improve recruitment from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. It runs a series of open days at universities outside Oxbridge targeted at courses such as IT, marketing and science. Group training and development manager Victoria Fletcher explains: ‘We take on hundreds of work experience students every year for two to five weeks, and noticed that they are predominantly white, middle class female from MA in publishing courses and there is no diversity there at all.’ She adds: ‘We need more digital, marketing and financial skills. So we thought, why don’t we do an event for students who wouldn’t necessarily think of publishing as a career?’ Under the tagline ‘Not for the Bookish’, the scheme has been successful at spreading the word about publishing careers to a much wider group, including men.

Ex-HC head Victoria Barnsley believes the divergence from the traditional hunting grounds for publishing talent is one reason why women are retreating from the boardroom. At the presentation of the 2014 Kim Scott Walwyn Prize, which recognises professional achievements in publishing and bookselling over the past seven years, she asked: ‘Is the shift in the balance of power related to the shift to digital?’

Quoting Martha Lane Fox who said that by 2040 only one per cent of the tech workforce would be female if current trends continue, Barnsley noted: ‘If Martha Lane Fox’s statistics about the staggering dearth of women in tech companies is correct, it’s bound to have an impact,’ She warned. ‘We know publishers are rightly supplementing their talent base by recruiting from tech companies. 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.’

But it isn’t just tech that is turning publishers to male recruits. There is also a perception among publishers that more men are needed in the industry. While researching a report published in April on cultural diversity among novelists and publishers, I spoke to a number of publishing human resources directors who included recruiting more men in their diversity goals. ‘It’s about not being a monoculture,’ one well-placed HR director told me.

He cited sound business reasons for this: monocultural companies persistently lag behind those with a multicultural workforce both in terms of performance and shareholder return. A diverse workforce will also be more in touch with a broader band of consumers, and able to reach into community groups not represented by the traditional workforce.

According to management consultants Mckinsey’s report Diversity Matters, published earlier this year, the top 25 per cent of companies for diversity outperformed sector rivals by 15 per cent, while for every 10 per cent increase in gender diversity, pretax profits at a company rose by 3.5 per cent. In an industry beleaguered by change, competition and digitisation, these effects are not to be ignored

But, does that mean that women should be missing from the all powerful C-Circle of chief executives, chief finance officers, chief operations officers and so on? Just as a monoculture lower down in an organisation should be discouraged, so should one at chief level – especially in a market where the vast majority of consumers and writers are women. Study after study has shown that having women in positions of senior leadership have a material effect on a company’s performance.

Heavy cost

The lack of female CEOs does not mean, of course, that women are no longer present in the boardroom of conglomerate publishing. At Penguin five of the eight publishing divisions have women MDs, and, says Penguin General m.d. of books Joanna Prior: ‘Speaking from the experience of PRH there are smart and able women at all levels of the organisation who are considered to be future leaders.’ At Hachette UK, four out of nine of its board are women – though that will reduce to three when Ursula Mackenzie retires. Of the 11 members of the HarperCollins UK executive board, only four are women, while at Random House of the 16 strong management board, eight are women, but on the operations board, which oversees areas such as sales and distribution, only one woman is present, Sinead Martin, Penguin UK deputy group legal director.

Does this matter to authors? Penguin’s Joanna Prior believes that women bring unique skills that benefit the trade. ‘Publishing is a profession based on relationship management and collaborative teamwork (amongst other things), requiring high levels of emotional intelligence as well as IQ. Women excel in all these areas,’ she says. Yet if talented women reach a point which they are unable to proceed, they will leave. This should concern the trade. HR estimates that to replace an entry-level employee costs between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of their annual salary, for mid-level employees this rises to 150 per cent and for the most senior roles, the cost is a stonking 400 per cent of their annual salary (source: Forbes magazine, 1st July 2014).

This calculation is based on the loss of experience, knowledge and contacts that a time-served employee brings to a business. It is why those who claim the maternity leave is the biggest problem facing ambitious publishing women are actually reading the issue back to front. If you are saving your business anything from 50-to-400 per cent of a salary by offering greater flexibility to returning mothers, you are not just showing your business to be progressive, but managing the bottom line in a way designed to please shareholders. That means more money to acquire and effectively market books, and more money to pay staff who are among the lowest paid in the media.

This is why developments among institutional shareholders in the US should give women in publishing encouragement. In April the board of the Massachusetts’ public pension fund voted unanimously to adopt a more socially responsible role wit the boards of company in which it invests. The new rules instigated by the pension fund included that it would vote against a company’s board nominees if less than 25 per cent were female or from an ethnic minority. In March BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset management company and a powerful shareholder, toughened its stance on board directors, using its substantial voting power to improve among other things diversity on the boards of its investment portfolio.

Amanda Pullinger, chief executive of 100 Women In Hedge Funds, which campaigns for greater diversity in the City and Wall Street, explains why this matters to UK publishers: ‘I believe that the biggest single change to diversity at public companies, including corporate publishers, will be due to the heads of governance at institutional investors (basically large pension funds and large financial institutions), who are now (for pure business reasons) demanding answers from boards on diversity at the board level and within senior ranks.’

The reason is that diversity of gender, experience, race and background produce better profits for investors, she explains. ‘I’ve just spent Friday talking to two women who are directors of governance at major California pension funds. They are demanding answers from boards – and are prepared to vote against board directors who aren’t pulling their weight and adding value. At the very least, this forces boards to have a conversation about diversity because they can’t afford to ignore a major investor.’

Of course there are those who will question why this matters to authors? Because as more women in corporates get frustrated at career advancement they will head out and that risks creating a vicious circle in which fewer and fewer women are able to break through the glass ceiling. As Victoria Barnsley said at the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize-giving last year, people in corporate roles tend to hire clones of themselves. ‘There is plenty of evidence that gender balance in businesses cascades from the top,’ she told her audience of publishing professionals. ‘If the top board is largely the preserve of men, the likelihood is that the subsidiary boards will also be predominantly male.’

This lack of imagination among male senior executives may be why women are heading into the independent sector whether as senior management – as Amanda Ridout has at Head of Zeus – or as entrepreneurs, like Kate Wilson at Nosy Crow. Wilson believes indepedents offer women work-time flexibility and that they welcome strong women. ‘I think that it’s possible that some behaviours can be seen differently depending on who is displaying them: outspokenness can be seen as lack of tact; tenacity as stubbornness; independent thinking can be maverick thinking and so on,’ she explains. ‘Sometimes I think that when women display these behaviours in corporate environments they are interpreted more negatively than when men display them.’

Look harder

But given that female authors already struggle for recognition in the literary world, it could be argued that the presence of women in publishing boardrooms has done little to aid female authors. In fact, for women writers, women literary editors have been far from helpful. The 2014 Vida Count, which surveys the representation of women both as authors and critics in the leading literary journals in the UK and US, found the bias against women continues – the worst offender was the London Review of Books which featured only 151 women compared to 527 male critics and authors. This is despite the magazine having a female editor – Mary-Kay Wilmers – and deputy editor – Jean McNicol.

Katy Guest, who as literary editor of the Independent on Sunday has tried hard to raise the number of women reviewed and reviewing, says she cannot understand whymen dominate so many books pages when there seems to be gender parity among literary editors. ‘I’ve heard editors argue that they try “really hard” to find women, “but it’s just impossible”,’ she reports. ‘I’d like to be able to give these editors some advice (my pages are pretty much 50/50, because, well why wouldn’t they be?), but short of telling them to open their eyes and look around and they’ll probably find some women, I don’t know what to suggest.’

Guest is a firm believer that women in positions of power, be they authors, critics or publishers, are important for a healthy book industry, not just because of the corporate arguments put forward, but because, quite simply, women are the biggest consumers of books. It’s hardly rocket science, she says. ‘Here’s a story,’ she adds. ‘A friend of a friend, a woman, was once the deputy manager of a major high street retailer. The male manager called her into his office one day and told her that the shade of the nail varnish she was wearing to work was “inappropriate” for working there. She said, “It is this store’s bestselling shade of nail varnish by miles, so (A) it’s very appropriate and (B) why don’t you know that?”.’

A twinkle in her eye, Guest adds: ‘If more women buy books or nail varnish than men, then the people producing those books or nail varnish ought to have better insight into the women who are buying them, and one good way to have insight into women (I’ve found) is to be one.’

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