Girls and Geeks in Publishing

I have a Master’s degree in computer applications. My thesis was on the dissemination of ideas and interactivity surrounding academic publishing. I have worked in a big publishing house. I have worked with app developers. I have always been interested in computers and software. I was five or six when I used to pay my brother 20p to teach me how to use DOS. I had a 2nd gen iPod before they were cool. I played online games when you had to use dial-up and lost everything when your mum picked up the phone to make a call. I play interactive stories written in 140 characters. There are few things I enjoy more than playing with new technologies.

I spend my days talking to, and working with, publishers, be they big, small or any size in between. I read trade magazines, I read the Bookseller, I read Wired and Gizmodo, I subscribe to more mailing groups and online forums than you can shake a moderately large stick at. I am a reader. I am consumer. I am a an author. I am friends with academics publishing scholarly articles. I am friends with authors publishing e-books and print books, and the publishers printing those books.

I can hand-code websites from scratch. I am a geek.

I think by any estimation it is safe to assume I know at least a little bit about what I am talking about.

By the way, I am a girl.

And I want to respond to some of the things said on the “Women in Publishing” Woman’s Hour programme on Monday 19th August.

It was an interesting show, and one I thoroughly recommend you listen to.

The main premise of the programme was to ask whether there are fewer women reaching the top in publishing in the digital age. Author Kate Mosse interviewed Ursula Mackensie on her role as Chief Executive of Little, Brown. She talked to Lennie Goodings, Publisher at Virago. She also had Clare Alexander (agent), Anne Sebba (author and chair of the Society of Authors) and Philip Jones (editor of the Bookseller) in the discussion. A lot of what was said was reassuring to hear – jobs going to the best people, regardless of gender.

At around 14:40 in the show, Philip Jones said (I paraphrase) “There is an argument that digital brings men to the fore… that men like gadgets more than women do”. He did go on to list several digital chiefs in big houses who are women, and states that he does not think women are being displaced because of digital. But his comments followed on from Clare Alexander saying (again I paraphrase) “there is a danger that publishers feel on the back foot, and in order to confront a digital world they need digital people, and publishing is in danger of defaulting to male and soldier mode”.

Firstly I want to address the comment “men like gadgets more“. Yes, Philip qualified his words to say he didn’t personally think this was true. However, on a daily basis I find that the perception in the industry is that it IS true, despite the fact that 80% of all tech decisions are influenced by women and around 50% of gamers are women. The number involved in creating technology, and devising the strategies to implement those technologies, is falling and this is just plain wrong.

What worried me, perhaps more than this comment being said by a very important voice in the industry, is that no one really challenged him on it (at least in the final edit of the show).

The wider discussion about the perceived need for the “warrior man” to take the publishing battle forward in this hostile new digital landscape also needs addressing. I need to focus my argument a little, so I won’t go into women in the armed services and the fact they are on the front lines as I write this, but I do want to draw your attention to the comment as I find it indicative of an entrenched belief that one gender or another has superior qualities in a particular arena, and taken to its logical conclusion, it implies women should step back and let the men take over and save us.

I want to be clear: whilst this particular comment was couched in a jokey “oh, we don’t really believe this” tone, it was still said by one of the illustrious, respected women on the panel. A leader in this industry thinks, at least in part, that we are damsels in distress, in need of the guidance of a strong male hand. Until this woman had given voice to the idea, I hadn’t actually given credence to the idea that a portion of my industry could believe Digital = Male.

Boys and girls are different and I thank the gods for that every day, because that is what makes life so much fun. But every single person is different, regardless of gender. Nor do I think the wider conversation should all be about women. It’s a joke that the average publishing person is a white, middle-class, Guardian reader called Emma, but we wouldn’t need bodies like EQUIP if it wasn’t also true. Publishing is probably 70:30 women at the lower levels.

But women, in general, are not the decision makers or the ones setting the tone of our industry. The upper echelons and decision makers are overwhelmingly male.

To get back to boys and girls and technology, I want to share a little anecdote. In my old Rights team, it was the boy who clung to his manuscripts, print copies, and physical colour print-outs to sell from, long after all the women had embraced the iPad and digital layouts to display our picture books on trips and at fairs. Yet I was at a conference a little while ago and there wasn’t a single woman on the tech panel. It isn’t that there are not women in technology. I can name many. It is that when putting together a panel, the default reaction seemed to be “technology = boys”.

It wasn’t even a very interesting panel.

I firmly believe the best person should get the job. That is a given. But time and again, I come across women who are reluctant to put themselves forward because they don’t feel good enough. We do not put our hands up and say “I can do that, I have something to say”. So jobs go to the people who do put themselves forward and, often, it’s the men.

I am NOT saying every techy role in publishing – or any other industry for that matter – needs to be filled with a woman. I am NOT saying every company needs a female CEO. All I am saying is that we need to take a long, hard look at our perceptions about what goes into a given role. There are perception battles that need to be fought across the industry. There are personal questions we all need to ask relating to what we think we can do.

Women might not be being actively displaced from the digital roles they currently hold, but I do think there is a very real danger that they will soon be missing out on the new opportunities that are coming through.

Comments are open because I think this is a topic which deserves people talking about it. Please, share your opinion below, but please do so respectfully. My full comment policy is outlined here, but boils down to the following: no spam and no meanness

Feel free to challenge me, question, or scold me, if you should so wish (praise is always welcome too), but try and do it without being too nasty. Let’s keep the conversation rolling πŸ™‚

Further reading:
Women in Publishing
Equality in Publishing
Guardian article on Six ideas to get more women involved in the tech sector
Lady Geek
Report on Women’s Careers in the Technology Industry
Academic study finding the numbers of women in Science and Technology fields alarmingly low

3 thoughts on “Girls and Geeks in Publishing

  1. Excellent BUT one quibble – would be improved by replacing ‘girl/girls’ with ‘woman/women’ unless you are referring to children. Good to read though & I agree with you! πŸ™‚

  2. Hi Kathryn, thank you for your kind words, and welcome to Bright Meadow!

    To address the girls/women issue: I thought long and hard about this as I was writing the post, because I am very aware of the importance of the language choices we make. I primarily used woman/women throughout (a total of 28 times). I consciously chose to use “women” because I agree, it is important how we refer to ourselves and I do not wish to trivialize the arguments I am making here.

    By using “girls” (8 times) occasionally, my primary intention was to lighten the tone. Bright Meadow is, first and foremost, a personal blog and over the ten years of writing here, I have developed a conversational style of writing. In my group of friends and wider acquaintances, it is not uncommon to refer to ourselves as “girls”. Feminists the lot of us, seasoned by Girl Power and Riot Grrrl, and we are comfortable with this label.

    At no point – please tell me if I’m wrong and I will change it! – did I refer to “men” in comparison to “girls” (though there is one instance of women vs. boys I might have to fix). This would have been trivializing and insulting. If we are talking about language choice, we should probably also address my choice to use boys over men – I used “boys” 7 times, and “men” 6. That’s not actually a ratio I am totally comfortable with and there are a couple of instances I deliberately chose to use “boys” because I wanted the juvenile connotations. As I said, I’m feeling a little guilty about this.

    I could also go into the use of “geeks” as pejorative vs. a label reclaimed by a group of people. But I won’t. Because I really don’t want to open that whole can of worms!

    I think what I am trying to say is that I appreciate your point of view, but I am going to stand by my use of “girl” in this instance. If I was to rewrite this post for a different audience, I would certainly reconsider that!

    And why use “Girl” in the title? I am a sucker for alliteration. Nothing more, nothing less.

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