PublisHer for inclusivity and THE EQUAL representation of women

Can you imagine that in the third decade of the 21st century, we still see big decisions in the publishing world made by our senior male colleagues, and then most women publishers have to adapt to those decisions no matter whether they suit us or not? This formula does not work anymore. Today, we all know that there are established legacies of extraordinary women who have created history and changed entire sectors for the better.

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PublisHer is the brainchild of Bodour Al Qasimi, Vice-President of the International Publishers Association (IPA). The London Book Fair 2020 sees the first birthday of the establishment of the network , which will be marked by a half day conference at the British Library to celebrate female publishing ‘Pathbreakers,’ ‘Pioneers’ and ‘Trailblazers.’ Emma House talks to Bodour about why she set up PublisHer and her aspirations for the future of the network.

Emma: What was your inspiration behind establishing PublisHer?

Bodour: Every now and then, there comes a time when someone needs to take an inspired action to create a much-needed change for the benefits of all stakeholders. This is true for the publishing sector as it is true for every sector. When the publishing sector was shaken to the core by the recent technological changes, publishers around the world gathered intensively and discussed ways and means to address the new realities of our time, which I believe is important for the survival and growth of our industry. But there has been an equally pressing issue that has been lurking beneath the surface for many years and yet received little attention from the sector, and in some countries no attention at all, and that is the issue of inclusivity and diverse representation of women especially in leadership positions.

Can you imagine that in the third decade of the 21st century, we still see big decisions in the publishing world made by our senior male colleagues, and then most women publishers have to adapt to those decisions whether they suit us or not? This formula does not work anymore. Today, we all know that there are established legacies of extraordinary women who have created history and changed entire sectors for the better.



My dream is that through PublisHer, we reach a day where gender inequalities in the publishing sector are totally neutralized, and that our collective focus remains on the development of our sector.

Emma: Why should publishing be different?

Bodour: I have been traveling all over the world meeting and learning from key players in the publishing sector and I can tell you with confidence that women publishers are energizing the sector and are very active in developing this industry within their respective communities. It’s time that their efforts, leadership, and creativity were recognized and it’s time we gave them equal access to leadership positions and allowed them to create impact in their own way. I am sure that our sector will benefit tremendously from the addedperspective of our gender at the strategic level, and at a time of major changes and serious existential threats, every opinion should count.

Emma: As you reflect on the first year, what has been the reaction to PublisHer? Especially the reaction from the male side of the industry?

Bodour: When I thought about establishing PublisHer, I knew deep down in my heart that there was a gap for women in leadership positions, and I knew that some of my female and male colleagues shared my sentiments, albeit sometimes cautiously. But what I didn’t expect was the broad and overwhelming support I received from many stakeholders in our eco-system when I launched PublisHer, and how fast this platform would become so popular, which goes to show that the gap is wide and urgent action was required. We received many requests to organize the same event at different book fairs, and today we have an executive board full of talent and wisdom, and most importantly full of passion for the ideals of PublisHer. It was encouraging to see how many male publishers offered their support and wanted to join us, and they have my gratitude. Their support reflects our aspirations which is to work closely with our male colleagues at all levels to further develop our sector. This is the reason why we have explicitly invited men to participate as guests and speakers during our 1st Birthday Summit, in London this year.

Emma: What has been your experience of being a woman in a publishing industry dominated mainly by men (i.e. the Arab publishing industry)? What challenges have you had to overcome?

Bodour: Overall, positive. But I look back to when I started, and I can tell you that it was not as easy. I don’t think the challenges I faced were just because I was a woman. It was a challenge of an established mindset, and our male Arab publishers just became comfortable in that status quo. But it was interesting for me to see that lots of my Arab publisher colleagues understand and accept that the role of women in general has evolved in politics, economy, sports, academia, and even in religious affairs. So they accepted that, but it was a novelty for them to see that an Arab woman publisher is voicing her opinions about the state of affairs of the Arab publishing sector, and suggesting solutions to overcome them. So, it was a bit hard for them, and for me in turn, to overcome that mindset barrier, but now, things are much better and my role together with all my female Arab publishers is widely accepted and is no longer a point of discussion, which I believe is and will be a point of strength for our sector in the Middle East.

Last September, IPA in collaboration with the Union of Jordanian Publishers organized the first ever regional event for the region. I was thrilled to see the diversity among the audience and experts in the field. I was even happier to see that the issue of gender was not even up for discussion as both male and female Arab publishers focused their energy on collaborating to find creative solutions for some of the most pressing challenges facing publishing in their region.

Emma: What do you hope to achieve by having the network?

Bodour: PublisHer was created to unify our vision, voice, and action plan in addressing some of the barriers we believe still exist in the face of women publishers and which are hindering our progress and career development. There is the power to collectively, especially when we are addressing mindset and cultural change. My dream is that through PublisHer, we reach a day where gender inequalities in the publishing sector are totally neutralized, and that our collective focus remains on the development of our sector.

Emma: What are the key issues you wish to focus on?

Bodour: During our first year, we held a number of consultations with women attending international book events to get a clear understanding of the main diversity and inclusivity challenges they face. We found a large number of common themes, regardless of where the women were based, such as lack of career progression and mobility, especially at executive level; gender pay gaps; limited access to female mentors; challenges around work-life balance and associated issues like suitable facilities and flexible working hours and environments. Most of these issues are well documented, which gives us a good framework from which we can start creating real world, practical solutions.

Emma: How can women in publishing get involved?

Bodour: There are several ways to get involved, but first, I believe the most important step is for women publishers to start believing in themselves and their important role in this industry. They also need to develop a mindset that rejects the status quo and believes that change is coming and is possible. Women can also get involved by simply attending our events, visiting www.womeninpublishing.org and signing up to our quarterly newsletter, and by engaging with us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. We are also very open to offers of sponsorship and in-kind support! It’s mostly due to our sponsors that we are where we are today – every event has been possible thanks to early adopters who have believed in PublisHer’s mission, and we’re deeply grateful to them all.

Emma: Many countries have a publishing industry that is already dominated by women, why do they need such a network?

Bodour: It’s well known that publishing employs many more women than men overall – I think it’s something like two thirds of people in publishing businesses in the West are women. However, there is a concentration of men in the highest-paid quartile, and men are given a disproportionate share of the most senior, best-rewarded roles. In addition, the gender pay gap is real. In 2018 a survey in the UK revealed that the gap was as much as 30% in some companies. These disparities are wrong, and all the more galling when there is a vast pool of talented women from which to choose and promote.

Emma: You will be only the second woman President of the IPA. Will the subject of Gender Equality feature in your priorities for your upcoming term as President of the IPA? if so, how will you focus on this?

Bodour: As a president of IPA, my focus will be to uphold its established values such as freedom to publish, respect for intellectual property rights, and literacy. I will also focus with my colleagues on the development of inclusivity in our industry, which is an idea that resonates well with so many stakeholders. The fact that I will be the second woman to be President of IPA is a positive reflection on everyone in IPA. The message we send to everyone outside our sector is that IPA is a meritocracy and talent and experience matter more than gender. I will work with everyone who wants an opportunity and who wants to develop our sector.

Emma: What can we expect to see from the network over the coming year? Are there any practical schemes that might come from the network i.e. a formalised mentoring scheme?

Bodour: This year, our primary goal is to start coming up with practical solutions. It was with this in mind that we launched the PublisHer Community Survey, which asks about the working lives and career experiences of woman in publishing.

Lack of access to female mentors has been consistently identified as a problem among women in publishing, and it’s always been clear to me that PublisHer could add value as a match-maker between mentors and mentees. We also want to find ways to develop and share gender diversity and empowerment, good practices, help publishers to improve recruitment policies, facilities, and professional support for women. We’re looking at producing some gender equality guidelines that publishing houses can apply, and we’ve begun discussing career mentorship and coaching schemes.

Emma: Are you aware of any similar networks in other industries that your admire and that PublisHer could aspire to?

Bodour: The Women in Publishing network in the UK was established 40 years ago and is still going strong. In the 1970s publishing in Britain was overtly sexist, and known as a ‘gentleman’s profession.’ Given this context, WiP was a true pioneer, agitating for fair pay and fighting discriminatory practices, and today publishing in the UK at least presents a very different picture. In January the UK Publishers Association released data that found that women hold 55 percent of the top roles – this is an amazing turnaround that I hope can be replicated in other countries.

Emma House is an international publishing consultant based in the UK. Her previous roles included Deputy CEO of the Publishers Association UK and Head of International Development at the London Book Fair.

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