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Women are running imprints and smaller publishing houses, but are still not so prevalent at chief executive level, despite notable exceptions like the late Carolyn Reidy at Simon & Schuster US and Penguin Random House’s Madeline McIntosh.  That was among conclusions on the session at the Sharjah International Book Fair’s Publishers Conference entitled ‘Is it a woman’s world?  Global women in publishing’.

Speaking by Zoom, Judith Rosenszweig, foreign rights director at Gallimard Publishing in France, said: “Although in the past ten years you can see more women in top positions, it is still unbalanced.  The very top positions are held by men, although this is decreasing.”  She added that her own mentor had been a man and that overall in France, men make up 75% of the workforce.

In a pre-recorded video, Reagan Arthur, publisher and executive vice president of Knopf in the US, recalled that 30 years ago, when she same came into the business, “if you were the only woman at a meeting then you were expected to be the one taking notes and making coffee.  But that is no longer the case.  I think the whole of publishing – indeed, the whole of humanity – is now more aware.

“As a young editor coming up I was championed by men and never felt that my gender held me back.  But balancing work and home life is a challenge.  I do think it is women who are always expected to do school pick-up or leave early because there is a school event or meeting.  And I think that for working parents with young children, it has been particularly difficult during the pandemic.”

Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi, CEO of Parresia Publishers, Nigeria, said she was proud to have established only the second publisher run by a woman in her country after Cassava Republic.  “I think the industry is becoming more confident now.  In Nigeria, there are really two types of publishing.  There are the contemporary houses, like my own, who are interested in publishing fiction, and then there are the large educational houses that are run by men.”

Neither Omoluabi-Ogosi or Egypt’s Hala Omar felt their gender had held them back, though Omar paid touching tribute to the help her father had given her.

Asked what women should do in order to address the gender imbalance in the very top leadership positions, Rosenszweig was quite clear.  “It’s a question of education,” she said.  “Women don’t feel confident enough, or competent enough, to aim for the leadership positions.  I think fathers should educate their daughters to aim for the top.”  On reflection, she might have changed that from ‘fathers’ to ‘parents’.

Moderator Emma House, managing consultant of the Oreham Group, paid tribute to the work of Sheikha Bodour’s PublisHer body, praising its work to “promote gender balance and peer support, and its celebration of women in leadership”.