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Why Aren’t there More Women at the Top in Scholarly Publishing?

Thousands of articles and books have been written about how few women make it to the very top of their organizations; searching ‘lack of senior women managers’ on Google Scholar yields over 17,000 results for 2013 alone.   But how well do we – the writers, publishers, and disseminators of these books and articles – fare in terms of the number of women in leadership roles in our profession compared with others? The answer, sadly, is a resounding “could do better.”

Things have undoubtedly improved in the last 20-to-30 years. When I started my first job in scholarly publishing in the mid-1980s at what was then Basil Blackwell Publishers in Oxford, there was not a single woman on the senior management team. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the highest-ranking position held by a woman was senior commissioning editor. Fast forward to 2013 and there are many more women in leadership positions, but the top ranks of scholarly publishing are still predominantly male.

Of course, this is not unique to our profession. The 2012 Catalyst Census found that, “Despite high-profile news about gender gaps, equal pay, and women on boards, once again the needle barely budged for women aspiring to top business leadership in corporate America.” As an industry, scholarly publishing tends to attract more women than men – 60/40 is typical of most companies I’m familiar with – so Sheryl Sandberg’s comment in Lean In, that “The pipeline that supplies the educated workforce is chock-full of women at the entry level, but by the time that same pipeline is filling leadership positions, it is overwhelmingly stocked with men”, certainly resonates.

Why is this the case, both in general, and in scholarly publishing in particular? Why does it matter? And what can we do about it?

Biology is certainly a factor. It’s women who have babies and, for most of us, this entails a career break of some sort – whether leaving the workforce temporarily or permanently, working part-time, or simply not having the flexibility to travel frequently or work the long hours expected in most senior-level jobs.  Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Commission and a passionate advocate for women in science, summed up her view on what’s blocking more women from staying in science in a recent interview:

“The problem is that we lose too many bright young talents as their career progresses just because the framework conditions are not right. This has to do with childcare facilities, with flexibility at the workplace, with the possibility of re-entering after a career break…”

But this can’t be the only issue, since not all women have families, and at least some of those who do – including Sandberg and Glover – have successfully reached the top of their professions.

So, much though I dislike the phrase, perhaps Sandberg’s overall thesis – that women need to “lean in” more – warrants further examination.  Is she right in thinking that we don’t have as much confidence in our abilities as men? Whatever your opinion of Lean In – and it has seen more than its share of male and female critics – most women will be familiar with what Sandberg describes as “impostor syndrome … feeling like a fraud”, and with how “fearing discovery with each success” causes us to pull back from risks and opportunities.

Do men worry about this?  Apparently not, or at least, not as much.  Sandberg quotes a number of studies showing that, when men and women are asked to evaluate themselves, women routinely under-rate their abilities, while men don’t. For example, “A survey of several thousand potential political candidates revealed that, despite having comparable credentials, the men were about 60% more likely to think they were “very qualified” to run for political office” (from a 2012 report by the Women & Politics Institute at American University).  At the same time, various studies confirm that the majority of people – men and women– still hold a double standard for men and women: being viewed as “ambitious” is seen as negative when applied to women, but positive when applied to men.

These biases are part of a vicious cycle that reinforces the status quo:  Sandberg believes this is central to why women hold themselves back – and why we don’t often make it to the top.  The sad fact is that unless we cause a shift in well-entrenched practices and long-held beliefs, the chances are that companies (including scholarly publishers) will continue to be run mainly by men.

So, what can we do to help change the situation?  Here are a few ideas to consider:

Challenge the ‘meritocracy’: The glass ceiling is supported by the view that those who rise to the top do so purely on merit.  But are our best interests really served by those who have made it to the top, regardless of gender? Numerous studies have shown the value of developing more women leaders through proactive initiatives. In Norway, where since 2008 there has been an enforced 40% female quota for board membership for all public limited companies, evidence shows that the greater presence of women in management led to more focused and strategic decision-making, increased communication, and decreased conflict. In addition, studies such as this 2011 McKinsey Report show that men have the advantage of being promoted based on their future potential, whereas women are promoted based on past performance.

Value and reward diverse talents:  The Norway example exposes what I see as a central issue in organizations today:  that the skills and competencies that are considered most valuable and, therefore, most rewarded, are typically not those at which women excel.  For example, relationship-building – something at which many women excel – is often undervalued as a skill in top managers, yet it’s essential for success, especially in scholarly communications.  As Jim Griffin of OneHouse pointed out in the keynote at the 2008 UK Serials Group conference, (reported in the UKSG blog about the event), “Libraries have an advantage: there is a female bias and they realize the value of relationships that never end … This feminization of the market will help us understand markets so much better and … more intelligently.” A few years later, at the 2012 Digital Minds conference, Griffin is quoted as saying, “Amazon knows what you like to read. It knows your birthday. It knows the sort of music you listen to, the films you watch. It probably remembers the color of your eyes and your wedding anniversary. It’s awoman, for God’s sake. And the customers keep coming back. Amazon isn’t interested in a one night stand, it wants a long term, loving relationship….”  Enough said!

Walk the talk: In the world of scholarly communications – where the vast majority of our smart, well-educated colleagues, customers, and clients, are likely to agree in principle that women’s and men’s contributions to our industry are equally valuable – we have the perfect opportunity to raise our game.  We may have moved from “failing” to “could do better”, but wouldn’t it be great if our industry could be the poster child for equality at all levels of its organizations – publishing companies, libraries, universities?  After all, scholarly publishing flourishes because of the efforts and creativity of large numbers of women.  Our industry also disseminates the results of research about the value of women in the workplace.  Isn’t about time for us to start practicing what we preach?

Last, a few disclaimers. I’m not a scholar, so this is an opinion piece rather than anything more rigorous. I’ve fact checked as much as possible, but am happy to stand corrected if I have anything wrong. I’m also not by any means claiming to speak on behalf of all or even most women in our industry. But, having spoken to many publishing friends and colleagues* (women and men) from a number of organizations – large and small, national and international, for profit and not-for-profit – I know I’m not alone in my view that we could and should be doing better at promoting women to more senior positions. And, while I’m coming at this primarily from a scholarly publishing perspective, since that’s where my background and experience is, the evidence I’ve seen indicates that the same issues affect other areas of scholarly communications, such as academia (see the 2013 Global Gender Index, as well as this great video on the lack of senior women scientists, for example) and libraries.

*Thanks to everyone who helped with this post, especially Emily Gillingham and Susan Spilka for their contributions 

POSTED BY  on The Scholarly Kitchen

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