Finding Feminism: A Woman In Publishing


If I Was A Car, I Would Run You Down

Four years ago, I would have probably said we don’t need feminism anymore. I would have said we’re doing ok as a culture and don’t sweat the small stuff like discrepancies in wage, promotion opportunities, and people yelling ‘nice tits’ when you’re walking down the street in the middle of the day. I would have said this stuff will disappear with time, or possibly denied they even happened. Of course, this was before I knew page three existed (because, no, it’s not normal and where I grew up it wasn’t a thing), before Robin Thicke, and before last week’s news that two of the biggest jobs in publishing, previously held by women, are going to men.

I am not suggesting that men don’t deserve these jobs. Both men seem incredibly well qualified to hold their respective positions.  But every time something like this comes up, I am (and in fact most people are) reminded of how our industry is overwhelmingly female, and the top jobs are held overwhelmingly by men. I don’t know why that is. I also don’t know why there is a difference between men and women’s pay.

I found feminism partly through the fact that I noticed these problems, and partly through the incredible women I know who work in publishing. Because there are so damn many of them. The ones who stare you down; the ones that ask difficult questions; the ones with brilliant ideas; the ones working late and hard on a bottomless pit of a project;  the ones that make me laugh with how much they cut through the shit when a conversation is in danger of spiraling towards circularity. These women inspire me to be ambitious.

Women don’t simply exist in publishing – we are a force. Last week, Virago celebrated its 40th birthday, and unveiled a timeline of celebrated memories in its history as a publisher for women. It is packed full of inspiring women and moments, not least an ad for a Fiat that reads: ‘If it were a lady, it would get its bottom pinched’ over the top of which someone has spray painted ‘If this lady was a car she’d run you down.’

I’m not writing this as a guilt trip to men. I’m writing this because women matter so much more than headlines give us credit for. I don’t want to be separated out into women only conferences in order for us to share our expertise in publishing (because we are incredibly under-represented at all other conferences  – see Sam Missingham’s article from June last year). I don’t think we should get special kudos when women make the shortlist for book prizes. I just don’t want to ever have to consider whether something I have done has been brushed aside because I’m a woman, rather than just because it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s called the glass ceiling. I don’t want that.

The most successful of our gender are congratulated not for their achievements but for the fact these achievements were made by a woman. The majority of us won’t even get that. Pointing this out every time I feel vaguely self-righteous won’t really change anything, but I’ll say this: if we exist in the margins of publishing, then they will be the best damn margins you have ever seen – the kind creeping inwards to the text from the constant scribbling of ideas. The kind with small cartoons that are as sharp as our minds. The kind that define the whole book. And more fool the idiot who underestimates us.

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  1. I’ll tell you why women hit the glass ceiling in publishing – babies, pure and simple. There are fantastic women I know who are managing to juggle careers with children (the amazing sales director at Harper Collins has three children), but in my experience (which is 15 years out of date because that was when I last worked in publishing – I am now a writer), once you have babies you get passed over for promotion, and everything you worked for before is ignored. I worked in Scholastic in the 90s. We were the most successful children’s company at the time, and the dominating force were women. Pretty much all the brilliant women I worked with have now gone freelance because combining childcare and a career was too damned difficult. Oh and you don’t earn enough to pay for the childcare. Smple thing, but I remember my MD getting congratulated for going to play rounders with his kids and taking the afternoon off. What a hero. What a new man. At the same time, I felt unable to blame lateness on my young baby/take time off when she was sick/leave the office early without being looked at oddly. I hope and pray it’s better now. There are a lot of women with families at HC (oh, it was run by a woman, coincidence?), so maybe it is. But I think that is the bottom line. There are very few men in publishing and they leapfrog over women when the hormonal thing kicks in.

    PS When I started in publishing in 1988, there was also the golden boy thing going on – the boys were few and far between and they got promoted faster. And god forbid that they had to dirty their hands doing boring admin tasks as editorial assistants the way that girls did…

  2. I still maintain feminism is a poor alternative to egalitarianism. Women having a rough time in the workplace is absolutely an issue, but do you believe that is more so than race? More so than sexual orientation?

    Off hand I know of no high level company workers in my industry who are openly gay. Frankly, I know very few people in any of my work places who have been open about it, across all industries I’ve worked in. THIS is of more concerning to me than the issues raised here, and I find it lazy and more than a little ironic for us to emphasise one element of equality. We’re all big now, we’ve matured, and I feel very certain that we can discuss inequality in all of its colours, rather than draping over a railing slapping back Mojitos and giving but one element priority.

    I don’t need feminism, because frankly, I find it lazy and more than a little consciously selfish.

    And regarding wage gap, I urge anyone interested in the topic to listen to this video series, as it suggests we are taking the wrong figure into account:

    1. So you’re saying you can’t speak to the truth of something without experience? Bit of a cop out, isn’t it? I think you’re old enough and wise enough to see perhaps how often someone is able to be openly of a different sexual orientation, and if not, is that not indicative of a problem?

      If you don’t see issues being raised for different minority groups, are you just going to ignore them? Assume they are not there? Or should we all purely be self serving? I’ll just support white, male problems, because I’m a white male. Wouldn’t really give me much to fight for, would it?

      1. My point is I’m not in a position to comment on racism or homophobia in the workplace. I think you and I have discussed this before, and maybe we’ll always be in disagreement, but just because there are other issues at play doesn’t make feminism any less relevant. It’s not an either/or situation.

        There may well be serious issues to raise with regard to both of those things. Feel free to raise them. I was talking about feminism in the context of publishing specifically because of the incident last week where two female CEOs stepped down, but obviously this doesn’t touch the wide spectrum of other issues minority groups encounter.

        1. At no point am I diminishing feminism, I’m simply throwing it into the equality discussion, and keeping it there. Rather than peeling equality apart to focus on those areas that apply to me, I’m proselytising the use of equality within equality. That’s my argument.

    2. You only have to look at the comments below that film to see the level of contempt towards women.

  3. V thought-provoking article – and comments. Love the comparison of marginal
    women and marginal monk doodles. Though I do believe that the middle is where
    women belong (and men, and any person in publishing with the right skills). Mix
    of everyone in the margins and in the middle, that’s the way forward I say.

    The “golden boy” problem that Julia mentioned is something I’ve come
    across a lot. Perhaps it’s a perfect storm – where group privileged by society
    at large are a rarity, they get even more privileged? Distilled privilege, like
    Don Draper’s finest malted booze?

    Re Terns Fawshawk’s comments about feminism vs equality, I definitely think
    that publishing has wider issues beyond sexual inequality – the whiteness of
    publishing, issues of class, too. As a white middle class person, I see a LOT
    of people very much like me (in societal terms) in publishing. I work with at
    least two people who went to my (private) school, for example. I’m practically
    David Cameron.

    However, the disparity between number of women at the bottom vs the top is
    one specific problem. I think in terms of race, imo, the issue is more at the
    recruitment stage – it’s not that there are no eg black CEOs of UK publishing
    companies. There might be, I don’t know…but the main issue I’ve observed is
    that it’s a majority of whiteness all the way down. Like very pale turtles. (At
    least that’s the case in children’s publishing – which may not be typical, I’m
    not sure?)

    When it comes to solutions, I suspect there will be common ones to all kinds
    of inequalities (sex, gender, – anything that disrupts patterns of power, that
    gives more than the “usual suspects” the opportunities (whether it’s
    at entry level or CEO level) should help everyone – white men included.
    Equality, imo, is good for everyone, not just the “disadvantaged”
    groups pre-equality.

    I don’t think blaming feminism for not having a broader focus is very helpful
    though. Rather let’s ask, how can we promote equality and motivate people to
    care about it? Is there some way of convincing people that having a more
    diverse workforce might actually end up with us selling more books – with more
    insight into more communities and groups of people, with different needs and
    desires and budgets? Unless something is a legal requirement, it can be hard to
    convince a company to change its ways unless there’s potentially money in it.

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