Circumscribed Advancement

Barriers to advancement that disproportionately affect women are another major facet of gender inequity present in the publishing industry. Indeed, it was these barriers that Jane Gregory, founding member of London-based advocacy group Women in Publishing, had in mind when she used the phrase “concrete ceiling” to describe the challenges that she and her fellow female coworkers faced trying to ascend the ranks of the publishing industry.1

women at the executive level in publishing

north america. 

While the situation in contemporary publishing seems to have improved somewhat from the concrete ceiling Gregory described in 1989—it is no longer assumed that a woman’s career prospects in publishing will be limited to the reception desk—it is clear that men continue to wield an outsized amount of power in the industry. The first Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS), conducted in 2015, found that while women comprised almost 80% of the North American publishing workforce, at the executive level only 59% of positions were held by women.2 The findings of the 2019 follow-up, DBS 2.0, were similar: the industry’s workforce was 75% female, but at the executive level, female representation dropped to 60%.3 The discrepancy between the gender make-up of the workforce at large compared to the gender make-up of the executive level suggests that women are being promoted at dramatically lower rates than their male colleagues.


Looking at Canadian publishing, the numbers seem much the same: The 2018 Canadian Book Publishing Diversity Survey, commissioned by the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP), found that the workforce comprised 74% women, but that women held only 62% of executive positions. The complement of these findings is perhaps even more telling: the industry was found to be only 18% male, but at the executive level 30% of positions were held by men.4 In other words, men are almost twice as likely as women to be promoted to the executive level, despite the fact that there are more than three times as many women as there are men working in the industry. 

While it is common for men to rise through the ranks with greater ease than women, it does seem that, in an industry where women over-index to such an extent, women should also hold a proportionally larger amount of power. As the data shows, however, men in publishing benefit from an institutionalized privilege that confers on them an outsized amount of power. But why is this the case? Why does the title of Women in Publishing’s 1989 report, “Twice as Many, Half as Powerful” still ring true today, more than 30 years later? 

vertical sex segregation in publishing 

The phenomenon of men bring promoted at higher rates than women can be explained by a confluence of historical factors and contemporary economic trends. Indeed, the “old boys network,” which, in the industry’s early days explicitly excluded women, continues to benefit men as a result of the social nature of the industry. Furthermore, the conservative mindset at the heart of the publishing industry perpetuates the male advantage. This advantage is concentrated by the continued consolidation of publishing houses, which leaves fewer executive positions and thus increases competition. Altogether, these factors create a hostile environment for women working in the industry, which may drive them from the industry prematurely. As a result, younger women in the industry are left without mentors or advocates. 

a (white) gentleman’s profession.

Historically, publishing has been referred to as “the gentleman’s profession.” According to Charlotte Gascoigne, speaking to the Women in Publishing oral history project, “gentleman” in this sense referred to a “gentleman of leisure,”5 someone with independent means who, instead of having to pursue a trade, could spend his time engaging in leisurely activities. Specifically, gentleman of leisure meant a wealthy white man, as white men were the primary group capable at that time of accruing substantial wealth. 

The gentlemen’s profession was made manifest in the “old boys’ network” that came to be associated with publishing—a blurring of social and professional spheres that saw important deals, promotions, and acquisitions often taking place over lunch or drinks, which were often imbibed at mens-only social clubs with exclusive memberships. 6 The exclusivity of these spaces meant that they were inaccessible to anyone who was not a white, cis, straight, able-bodied man—effectively barring anyone who didn’t belong to this specific subset of upper class men from participating meaningfully in the book publishing industry.

While the above scenario mostly describes the publishing industry prior to the 1980s, 7 remnants of this old world are visible in the trade today. In a sense, this should come as no surprise—the Publishers Weekly 2019 Salary Survey found that the median number of years that male respondents had spent in the industry was 17.5,8 which suggests that the industry is barely two generations removed from the old boys’ network of the mid-20th century.

male social advantage.

Furthermore, it seems likely that this historic male advantage may be further exacerbated by the social nature of the industry, which was discussed in the previous chapter of this report. A working paper published in 2020 by the National Bureau of Economic Research in conjunction with Harvard Business School supports this theory.9 The study found that, in the absence of any performance or effort differential, men working under male managers were more likely to be promoted than men who reported to female managers. Furthermore, the study found that the circumstances that contributed to men being promoted at higher rates were mediated by social interaction. 

In the study, men who took breaks with their managers tended to be promoted more quickly, and men who smoked, and who took smoking breaks with their male managers, were promoted at the highest rates. The study concluded that male-to-male relationship building (as opposed to straightforward favouritism) accounted for certain men being promoted at higher rates. It stands to reason, then, that in an industry such as publishing, where social functions are an integral part of how the trade functions, that this male advantage—the ability to be promoted more quickly as a result of forming social relationships with other high-ranking men—would only be magnified. Interestingly, the study found that the gender of a woman’s superior had no effect on her rate of promotion.

While lunchtime meetings and after-hours events may no longer explicitly bar women from participating, it does seem that the highly social nature of the industry, a last vestige of publishing as a “gentleman’s profession” may disproportionately benefit men. Furthermore, the character of these social work spaces—working environments where the white noise of sexual harassment is quotidian—also disproportionately hinders women, as if they are punished for participating. In such a hostile environment, it stands to reason that women would be less likely to participate, and certainly less likely to perform professionally at their full capacity. Thus, men face less competition and their advantage is compounded.   

This social advantage may partially explain the phenomenon of male executives hiring or promoting in their own (male) image, an issue that has been discussed at length in articles published by The Bookseller, the Independent, and The Guardian. According to one industry professional speaking to The Guardian, there is an abundance of “white, middle- and upper- class, privately educated men selecting other white, middle-class, privately educated men [for jobs and promotions] … It has a chilling effect.”10 In other words, the old boys’ network continues to propagate. 

economic factors.

In addition to the historical legacy of social circles that excluded women and the disproportionate advantages that men enjoyed—and continue to enjoy—as a product of these social associations, it also seems that economic instability, conservative logic, and corporate consolidation further complicate professional advancement for women in publishing. 

As Baroness Gail Rebuck reflected in the Women in Publishing oral history project, following the economic downtown of 2008 there was a resurgence in conservative hiring practices that favoured men, “the safe option,” over women.11 Writing in The Bookseller, she explains, “it was as if boards or management committees fell back into familiar, ‘male-suited’ patterns.”12 While the market crash of 2008 was undoubtedly monumental, it bears considering that publishing is a notoriously precarious industry with legendarily tight profit margins. If it is, in fact, true that economic instability encourages conservative hiring and promotion practices, it would seem to follow that women looking to ascend the ranks in the publishing industry are continuously swimming against the current. 

In addition to the ways in which the industry reacts to economic hardship, there is an inborn conservatism inherent to publishing that negatively affects women and minority groups even in the best, most prosperous of times. As John Maxwell explains in his article, “Thinking about the Legacies of Colonialism in Publishing,” the economies of scale at the heart of publishing mean that the industry is predisposed to act according to what Maxwell calls the “economic logic of the best-sellers”. In essense, because the logic of the bestseller is dictated by cultural norms, it reinforces a conservative mindset wherein anything that doesn’t conform to cultural norms is seen as a risk.13 While Maxwell was specifically talking about industry output, it’s hardly a leap to imagine how this deep-seated risk aversion at the heart of publishing could also have implications for hiring practices. In the context of publishing being a (white, middle-/upper-class, straight, cis) “gentleman’s profession,” anyone who does not fit this profile is seen as a risk, and therefore less likely to be valued as an employee, and certainly less likely to be promoted.

corporate consolidation.

Another reality of the publishing industry is the trend toward corporate consolidation, which has, since the early 20th century, seen the majority of English book publishing activity subsumed into what is commonly referred to as The Big Five: Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Hachette. As Danuta Kean explained in The Guardian, these mergers mean that there are fewer executive positions to be filled, which often bodes poorly for women.14 Indeed, according to a report published by the International Labour Organisation, the larger a company is, the less likely it is to be run by a woman.15 As I write this report, not one of the Big Five has a woman in the CEO position.  

Furthermore, it’s not just women who are negatively affected by corporate consolidation in publishing. In addition to minority groups whose career prospects are exponentially diminished by the shrinking numbers of executive positions, corporate consolidation actually weakens the industry as a whole, and negatively impacts authors and readers as well. 

Consolidation is harmful to the industry because it constitutes a narrowing of the market—this means fewer publishing opportunities for authors (leading to lower advances and a weakened ability to negotiate favourable contracts),16 less title diversity, and fewer options for readers. By concentrating the means of distribution, corporate consolidation also imperils booksellers because it gives a single entity power over a disproportionate number of titles. 

where have all the women gone?

A final factor that may explain why fewer women hold executive positions in publishing is the simple fact that women don’t seem to stay in the publishing industry for as long as men. The Publishers Weekly 2019 Salary survey found that 38% of men had been working in the industry for over 20 years, compared to only 10% of women.17 Significantly, women in this survey outnumbered men in the three-to-seven-year’s experience bracket (29% women compared to 17% men), as well as the less-than-three-year’s experience bracket (12% women compared to 5% men).18 Unfortunately, there isn’t data available for Canadian publishing that measures time spent working in the industry as a function of gender, but given the demonstrated similarities between English language publishing elsewhere and in Canada, the Canadian industry might be similar. 

what we don’t know

While the data suggests that women are leaving the publishing workforce prematurely, it does not shed light on why this is happening. The deeply entrenched culture of sexual harassment combined with the systemic obstacles enumerated in this chapter may be partially to blame, but so too might be caretaking responsibilities, inflexible workplace policies, and low pay. The publishing industry (even at the senior level) is also significantly structured around freelance and contract-based work,19 which is flexible, but lacks the comprehensive benefit packages that are more likely to come with salaried employment. As such, women with higher healthcare expenses, such as those who have children or are chronically ill, may choose to leave the publishing industry in favour of a job that offers more support.

Until we have data that captures why women are leaving publishing in such high numbers, it will be difficult to formulate a strategy for keeping women in the industry for the full duration of their careers, which is an important factor in professional advancement. 


As this chapter has demonstrated, there are multiple obstacles that women looking to ascend the ranks in publishing are forced to contend with. These obstacles are both historical and contemporary. Publishing’s legacy as a gentleman’s profession, for instance, continues to have ramifications for women; the social nature of the industry, which benefits men while hindering women, as well as a deeply-embedded conservative logic together perpetuate the old boys’ network. Furthermore, conservativism as a function of economic precarity and corporate consolidation, two perennial forces at work in the industry, also disproportionately benefit men, specifically white, middle- and upper-class men, who are seen as the “safe” option. Finally, women tend to leave the publishing industry much earlier in their careers than their male counterparts, which means that fewer women have the opportunity to reach the executive level. Altogether, these structural advantages support the professional advancement of men in the publishing industry and in turn create a significant gender wage gap in their favour, which the following chapter of this report will explore.


  1. Harriet Marsden, “A gentleman’s profession? The women fighting for gender equality in publishing,” Independent, April 6, 2018.
  2. Lee & Low, “Where Is The Diversity In Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results,” The Open Book Blog, January 26, 2016.
  3. Lee & Low, “Where Is The Diversity In Publishing? The 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey Results,” The Open Book Blog, January 28, 2020.
  4. Association of Canadian Publishers, “2018 Canadian Book Publishing Diversity Baseline Survey: Summary Report,” March 2019.
  5. Charlotte Gascoigne, interviewed by Sarah O’Reilly, November 2014, Women in Publishing Oral History Collection, British Library, London UK. Via Women in Publishing.
  6. Mountain, Penny and Suzanne Kendall, interviewed by Sarah O’Reilly, 2017, Women in Publishing Oral History Collection, British Library, London UK. Via Women in Publishing.
  7. A Gentleman’s Profession,” Women in Publishing: An Oral History, Jane Cholmeley and Penny Mountain, accessed June 29, 2020.
  8. Jim Milliot, “The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey, 2019,” Publishers Weekly, November 15, 2019.
  9. Zoë B. Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia, 2020 “The Old Boys’ Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap,” Working Paper 26530, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA.
  10. Penny Mountain and Suzanne Kendall, interviewed by Sarah O’Reilly.
  11. Gail Rebuck, interviewed by Sarah O’Reilly, August 11, 2015, Women in Publishing Oral History Collection, British Library, London UK. Via Women in Publishing.
  12. Gail Rebuck, “Reflecting on Women in Publishing,” The Bookseller, February 13, 2015.
  13. John Maxwell, “Thinking about the Legacies of Colonialism in Publishing,” Publishing@SFU (blog), Simon Fraser University, July 9, 2020.
  14. Danuta Kean, “Are things getting worse for women in publishing?,” The Guardian, May 11, 2017.
  15. Women in Business and Management: Gaining Momentum (Abridged Version of the Global Report), International Labour Organization, Geneva. ILO, 2015.
  16. The Authors Guild, “AG Statement on Proposed Sale of Simon & Schuster and Its Ramifications for Authors,” Industry & Advocacy News, The Authors Guild, November 25, 2020.
  17. Milliot, “Industry Salary Survey, 2019”.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Nordicity, “Canadian Book Publishing Industry Profile: Final Report,” (Association of Canadian Publishers, July 2018), 19. 
Scroll to Top