There’s No Ceiling if You Start at the Top! Women in Digital Publishing and Tech
By Laura Brady and Christen Thomas
Successful, professional women can be found across the digital publishing industry. Digital publishing and start-up ventures appeal to women for a variety of reasons, such as the opportunities for technical innovation, collaborative and challenging environments, and out of a love for books and the future of reading.
Nonetheless, a low-simmering sexism exists in the digital publishing space. Recently, Digital Book World ran a blog post called Why are Ebook Startups Dominated by Men?, which addressed these issues. But it felt like a facile overview of our industry’s sexism. In response to that post, a heated conversation started up on Twitter among women who felt as we did, that it was not an accurate explanation or representation of our own experiences.
In fact, women working in “digipub” are not anomalous or unusual — they are plentiful, and have diverse and nuanced experiences. The blog post left us with a lot of questions, and we decided to survey female industry experts with various backgrounds and unique stories to see what they had to say. We received insightful responses from the U.S., Canada and France, from female technologists, CEOs and start-up founders, technical specialists in digital publishing, intrapreneurs (entrepreneurs working within larger organizations), ebook distribution managers, ebook developers and book futurists.
Here, these women working in the digital publishing space provide a real-world perspective on their passion for start-up ventures and tech as well as why women make the professional choices they do.
Risk? What Risk? The Appeal of Digital Publishing and Start-ups
Digital publishing start-ups appeal to people regardless of whether they’re a man or a woman.
Being on the “front line of digital disruption” draws Brenda Walker, CEO and founder of EndTap, to apply her skills for technical, collaborative innovation to the book market.
Meghan MacDonald, Digital Project Manager at Penguin Random House Canada, completed Simon Fraser University’s master of publishing program, which had a tech component. “After that I realized that I loved using technology to solve problems, and I’ve been working in that area ever since,” said MacDonald.
Kristen McLean, CEO of Bookigee, is a publishing industry veteran drawn to new models in the industry and describes herself in her Twitter bio as “Book futurist | Consumer zoologist | Idea omnivore” – all drivers that put her in her current seat.
Ami Greko, who currently works at Goodreads as a book marketing strategist, thinks of herself as a “book evangelist” and wants to get books into as many hands as possible, which is made easier by the Internet than traditional publishing.
Liza Daly is the vice president of engineering at Safari Books Online and a start-up founder and is drawn to “projects that matter and that provide value to people.”
Hope Leman works in the healthcare industry and oversees two online databases, which resemble the sort of services start-ups provide, and is proud to develop free-to-use online library resources
Elise Boulard, sales manager for a prominent ebook distribution company in France, sought out the challenges of digital publishing, and says she was “attracted by computer science and programming but not enough to learn it in a university and begin a career in this sector.”
Miral Sattar, founder and CEO of Bibliocrunch, was attracted to the risks and opportunities of a start-up precisely because of the challenge of melding technology with publishing.
It Starts with the Toys: Professional and Educational Opportunity
Many start-ups in the publishing space appear to be male dominated while the population of any publishing certificate program is female dominated. This disparity reflects on historically fewer women in STEM programs (fields of study in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
“This disparity is rooted very deeply in our modern societies,” says Boulard. “The seed is planted in our mind since childhood that girls are good at arts and boys at math. This idea is unconsciously maintained by every single part of the society we grow up in: people, school, marketing, everything. Broaching this issue from the publishing point of view would be very reductive, it is much wider than that.”
Daly explains that her technical background enables her to take the risks of a start-up venture, while many entrepreneurs struggle to find a “technical co-founder…(and) very often the technical co-founder is expected to contribute little or nothing to the product vision and simply implement someone else’s.”
Sattar suggests that the appearance of men in start-ups may have something to do with the type of high-profile start-up that appeals to funders. “I think it’s because venture capitalists (a male-dominated industry) generally tend to fund and support young males. Everyone is looking to invest in the next Mark Zuckerberg.”
Andrew Rhomberg, in Why are Ebook Startups Dominated by Men?, suggested that work/life balance and “risk aversion” keep many women out of these intense positions. But the fact is that none of the women we spoke with have kept themselves in safe jobs; and neither are they simply doing all the same work as their male counterparts, but backwards and in high heels. Women in digital publishing are blazing their own trails.
McLean has a high appetite for risk, and describes the challenges not as work/life balance, but more in questioning herself. “Am I doing the very best I can in every way I can? Am I the best mom I can be? Am I the best CEO I can be? Am I being as ballsy as I need to be? Am I being as brave as I need to be?”
Leman happily devotes long hours to a day job in a tech position, as well as extra time writing about digital-publishing matters for Critical Margins, a publishing and technology blog.
Sattar says of work at a start-up that “in the beginning it was 80-plus hour work weeks on the weekends as well. But eventually you figure out how to delegate and balance.”
Walker insists: “No great risks mean no great rewards,” and discounts the idea that work/life balance affects women more than men. “I think there is a gross misperception that you have to work 24/7 to succeed. In many cases I find that people working around the clock don’t deliver quality results.” Walker suggests that the idea of working overtime to get the job done points out inefficient work habits, not, say, a young man’s freedom to devote more time.
MacDonald also describes an appetite for risk: “I build and launch new, disruptive products – I just happen to do that from within an established company instead of at a start-up.”
We asked about what learning environments were like for these women in acquiring tech skills through school and independently. None experienced discrimination, though noted fewer women in business and technology programs. All of the women agreed in advocating coding as literacy for all, and that teaching programming in schools would help more women enter computer science and engineering, as well as business.
Walker says that, “once code instruction is universal, little attention would be paid to gender differences.” One response noted that this might not lead to equality, and that “we have to change the culture by teaching equality, period.”
One example of an innovative program to help combat imbalances is Ladies Learning Code, a woman-run Toronto-based not-for-profit organization, which offers courses for women (and men) to learn programming languages and aims to empower everyone to feel comfortable learning beginner-friendly technical skills in a social, collaborative way.
But more opportunities for learning are needed, MacDonald says, “advanced-level courses that are available for both women and men outside of the university environment, though. Codecademy.com and BitMaker Labs are two other, but very different, examples.”
McLean doesn’t feel that a separate coding environment for women is needed educationally, although (like ladies-only gyms) the women might prefer it that way for their own “comfort.”
Boulard doesn’t feel that education for women only is the long-term solution. Leman applauds crowdfunding ventures that inspire interest in science and engineering in girls such as Josie Robin, Science Fiend: A STEM Inspired E-Book for Kids and GoldieBlox: The Engineering Toy for Girls. “Crowdfunding is a wonderful way to encourage development in both the world of ebooks and in supporting female entrepreneurs (such as Debbie Sterling of GoldieBlox) in their efforts to develop toys and books on STEM-related themes for girls.”
The Short Line to the Bathroom: Sexism, Discrimination and Career
On whether sex has affected career arc, most of the women did not feel that there has been a negative impact.
In fact, Daly says that her being a woman has affected her “only positively. I haven’t personally faced any serious gender-based discrimination (I’m occasionally not assumed to be technical, and that’s annoying but hasn’t held me back professionally). I found it a real asset to stand out in a crowd of male technologists.” In fact, Daly recently tweeted about how nice it is to be a minority female in tech.
Concerned if we address persistent gender imbalance in tech that I'll lose my one opportunity to use the short bathroom line. #xoxofest
— Liza Daly (@liza) September 21, 2013
While overt sexism hasn’t affected our survey pool, there are many accounts of it and plenty of evidence of women facing great scrutiny as technologists. Leman looks back and noted that in the 1970s and 80s women were not encouraged to go into STEM fields, but she is “delighted that younger women now are not experiencing that same sort of discouragement.”
Sattar, who was one of four women in her 25-person Columbia engineering program, points out the lack of diversity in general in publishing and says, “As a female and a woman of color I’ve always felt that I needed to prove myself before folks in the [tech] industry took me seriously.”
Walker reaffirms this idea, saying that she’s always had to work a little harder than her male counterparts both because she was under greater scrutiny, and for fear of “someone trying to pigeonhole me in marketing or administration.”
Greko extends the challenge of gender to the challenge of class as well, and that her working class roots free her to take more risk, and allow leaving a job considered very high profile much easier.
In the Rhomberg article, a generalization of introversion is equated with coder/male while extroversion is equated with publishing/female was expressed. None of the women we spoke with agreed with this idea, knowing many coders that are extroverted, and introverts in publishing.
Leman said that the stereotype is as unfair to men as it is to women, making men seem maladjusted, as well as diminishing the abilities of women.
Walker and MacDonald identify with introversion, but have learned to efficiently network and present in public.
McLean did relate to this “only in the sense that coders don’t always make the best operations [managers] or CEOs, whereas publishing does generally attract socially and intellectually engaged people,” and that women “tend to run more intuitive businesses, and that having a good Emotional IQ is critical. That can come with introversion or extroversion.”
Toward Parity in Digital Publishing
To encourage more women to pursue technology jobs, we have to stop discouraging them, MacDonald says, and it can be changing the little things like: “feeling like an outsider because there were so few women in my high school programming class; having a guidance counselor warn me that the field was male-dominated.” MacDonald and McLean suggest making programming courses fun, and that educating should include identifying career paths.
McLean says that Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that works to educate, inspire, and equip high school girls with the skills and resources to pursue opportunities in computing fields, is doing a great job of this.
Daly says direct outreach may not be most effective, that to achieve gender balance she would “definitely like to see women in technology (especially at senior levels) be more visible, and I applaud the efforts underway to ensure that tech conferences have a good diversity of speakers. But I’d also like to see more support on the entrepreneurial side: make starting a venture less scary; …provide more obvious coaching and mentoring for individuals who aren’t part of an existing ‘old boys’ network; help existing female technologists get their product ideas out of their head and into execution.”
Leman calls for more women to participate, such as speaking at tech conferences to network and build careers, and recommends @CallbackWomen to learn about opportunities via Twitter.
On whether there is a “glass ceiling” in digital publishing, Daly says, “there’s no ceiling if you start at the top! Start-ups are the ideal mechanism for women who feel that they’ve been thwarted in traditional companies to take the reins themselves.”
To be sure, there are many women on the technology side of publishing who are in positions of power — like the chief digital officer (CDO) of HarperCollins, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, the CDO of Simon & Schuster, Ellie Hirschhorn, and Penguin global digital director, Molly Barton — but there is still much progress to be made.
McLean says, “there are plenty of women at the top layers of the publishing market, and plenty of books for men on the market as well. I don’t think there are inherent blocks against women at the top of publishing houses — however, there are precious few women with the CVs to become Chairs & CEOs. That’s not just publishing, that’s business, and a larger discussion, I think. Publishing has plenty of opportunities for those who wish to play the game in the boardroom.”
Walker says that, “starting a business is hard regardless of gender, race or even economic background. Assuming that you are in a disadvantaged position from the beginning only makes the road appear harder… At the end of the day, the hand-wringers and debaters aren’t even fractionally as important as finding and satisfying customers.”
Greko feels there’s a flaw in the way companies are structured if many turn away from the traditional role of CEO. “I see the CEO position as outmoded. Why would one person (in the case of start-ups, normally someone who has an expertise into turning ones into zeros) feel like they should make decisions for a company with so many moving parts?”
Your authors have two anecdotes to add. Christen works at eBOUND Canada, a not-for-profit organization assisting publishers with their digital programs. The staff is currently 75% female, not a conscious hiring decision but reflective of the qualification of women in the industry. Despite this, about 30% of applicants address the manager of technology as “Mr.”
Laura is a freelance ebook developer who has chosen to work from home in order to be around her kids after school. That choice means she is a hard-working sole proprietor who has to manage an intense, 60-hour a week workload, schedule business calls around drum practice, and bring a laptop on vacation, etc. This is not an easier or less-risky choice than in-house employment, but a deliberate one.
Find Your People: Celebrate Women’s Achievements
We don’t agree that ebook start-ups are being dominated by men. Perhaps the success stories and challenges of women in the industry are not being shared as much, belying a slow-burning sexism still exists in the industry and beyond. As Erin Kissane points out here, working in the buzzy world of tech might be a question of finding your people.
Ada Lovelace, who is considered the world’s first computer programmer, was asked by her colleague Charles Babbage, “So, you never doubted your abilities?” To which she replied, “That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show.”
As all the smart women surveyed here have told us, progress is being made everyday. These women are role models and active mentors that encourage more women to pursue these careers and show anything is possible, and that women are professionally successful in the digital publishing sector now.
Image Credit (top): Image via Shutterstock