Glass Ceiling
Glass Ceiling (Photo credit: IslesPunkFan)

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 a woman, 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

Alice Meadows

Alice Meadows

I am a Co-Founder of the MoreBrains Cooperative, a scholarly communications consultancy with a focus on open research and research infrastructure. I have many years experience of both scholarly publishing (including at Blackwell Publishing and Wiley) and research infrastructure (at ORCID and, most recently, NISO, where I was Director of Community Engagement). I’m actively involved in the information community, and served as SSP President in 2021-22. I was honored to receive the SSP Distinguished Service Award in 2018, the ALPSP Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing in 2016, and the ISMTE Recognition Award in 2013. I’m passionate about improving trust in scholarly communications, and about addressing inequities in our community (and beyond!). Note: The opinions expressed here are my own


45 Thoughts on "Why Aren't There More Women at the Top in Scholarly Publishing?"

Important conversation and one I continue to follow. As women in leadership, we must continue to support one another on our leadership roles. Leadership is a state of mind that we can and must embrace.

An interesting piece. I feel very privileged that at Palgrave Macmillan, both our MD, Sam Burridge, and our CEO of Macmillan Science and Education, Annette Thomas, are female.

I’ve worked in academic/STM publishing for almost 25 years, and for most of those years, my direct manager and/or VP was a woman. That being said, in almost 25 years, I’ve never worked for a publisher whose president/CEO/MD was a woman. This might have something to do with the fact that the chairman of the board was always male as were most of the board members.

The section about the “impostor syndrome” and the lack of confidence (or dare I say cockiness) resonates. My experience has been that men are much more comfortable with the “fake it until you make it” style of leadership than women, who tend to be more authentic and less cavalier. Yet, the women I know who have reached the highest levels of organizations do possess that ability to “fake it until they make it.” They know how to pull one over when they have to. It’s a reality that part of leadership is the ability to convince followers at certain junctures that you possess the confidence and ability to lead. Sometimes, this means minimizing uncertainty to generate momentum and a self-fulfilling prophecy of success — i.e., fake it until you make it.

I sit in most editorial board meetings as the only woman. My staff is almost entirely women. We still need to shake the image that we are “the ladies in the back office.” I am a firm believer and practitioner of the fake it until you make it plan.

Thanks for your comments. I’ve also worked for several excellent women managers and worked with many more. However, given the high proportion of women to men in scholarly publishing, very few women get to the top. Macmillan is the exception rather than the rule – something I find disappointing and (statistically) surprising. I think you are right that having a mainly male board/chairman is part of the problem, Barton.

I agree that women are underrepresented in top management positions relative to the higher percentage of women working in publishing. My point was that unfortunately women regardless of their experience and accomplishments are only ever allowed to rise to a certain height.

or maybe they stop asking permission and go out and build the organization they want to run!

A few others: Wolters Kluwer (CEO), American Heart Association (CEO and head of publishing), American Society for Microbiology (head of publishing), Optical Society of America (CEO and head of publishing), American Chemical Society (CEO), Outsell (CEO), Copyright Clearance Center (CEO), AAAS (head of publishing), American College of Physicians (head of publishing), John Hopkins University Press (head of house), University of California Press (head of house), American Psychiatric Association (head of publishing), American Cancer Society (head of publishing), American Pharmacists Association (head of publishing), American Geophysical Union (CEO), Radiological Society of North America (head of publishing), ASBMB (CEO and head of publishing), BioOne (CEO), CABI (head of publishing), PLoS (CEO), American Academy of Pediatrics (head of publishing), American College of Cardiology (head of publishing).

Other organizations where the head of publishing or CEO was recently a woman include:

BMJ (CEO), American Medical Association (head of publishing), ASCO (head of publishing), AACR (head of publishing), University of Chicago Press (head of house).

I’m not suggesting the industry is equal, but Macmillan is not the only exception.

The fact that we feel the need to point out the exceptions speaks volumes. I would also argue that there is a big difference between “head of house” and “head of publishing” in the learned society world (e.g., compensation, visibility).

Has a study been done on this so we can quantify the issue? It seems very easy to do. Just look at the top 100 organizations in STEM and scholarly publishing (or every organization with over $5M in revenue – of which there are less than 200) and then look at who holds either the CEO or (in instances where the organization is a society) the head of publishing position(s).

No study that I know of, Mike. I researched about a dozen of the major scholarly publishers (including a couple of v large societies) and most have just one or two women in their executive leadership teams – or even none. Even where there are women at the very top, as in the examples you give, the ratio of women to men at top executive level rarely reflects the number of women employed in the company/industry as far as I can tell. But I agree a proper study would be very helpful.

Seems like something that SSP or ALPSP (or both, jointly) might commission…

Happy to help with the study. When shall we get started? any other volunteers?

May I suggest that the last paragraph of this excellent post is much more of an apology than a man would have written? Old habits die hard ….

But do women want to be at the top? What if you have a fantastic boss who trusts you to get what needs to be done, and lets you do it however you want, guiding you when needed and rewarding you appropriately? We are supposed to want to get to the top, and LinkedIn repeatedly tells me nobody wants to hire people unless they are immediately thinking about promotion. We need, as a society, to recognize motivation to succeed doesn’t always have to manifest itself as a desire for promotion so we stop hiring people looking for a fight. And to build happy, interested, self-motivated employees looking to do what is best first for the company, and not for themselves.

Timely article. There may also be reason to look at the management structure of most publishers. Unless the publisher is quite small, an “all hands onboard” organization, it remains as a rule hierarchical. Thomas Malone, founding Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, says in his Edge Conversation of 11/21.12, that this research reveals a linear relationship between the number of women in a collective intelligence organization and its performance against – the more the better. Perhaps rather than trying to crack the ceiling, we’d have better luck at achieving parity by bridging the gap between hierarchies.

Thanks for a thought-provoking piece. I’m happy to report that the picture appears brighter at university presses. Today there are 49 women directors at AAUP’s 131 member presses, and women number highly on the executive and senior management teams throughout our community. Current directors at larger university presses include Kathleen Keane (Johns Hopkins), Alison Mudditt (California), Barbara Kline Pope (National Academies Press), and Ellen Faran (MIT).

To this I might add that much of the credit for the AAUP’s success in achieving gender equity is due to the efforts over several decades of Women in Scholarly Publishing (WISP):

During my own 45+-year career, I have reported more often to women than to men. As an editor at Princeton, I reported to Miriam Brokaw, Associate Director and Editor-in-Chief. As director at Penn State Press, my last two reports were to Eva Pell, as VP for Research, and Nancy Eaton, as Head of the Penn State Libraries. Now, in semi-retirement, I acquire scholarly books in political science part-time for Lynne Rienner, who heads her own company. I also serve on the board of the CCC, headed by Tracey Armstrong, who rose through the ranks from secretary to CEO during my time on the board. The president of the AAP for many years was Pat Schroeder.

I am struck by the last paragraph full of disclaimers. I find that the need to qualify our opinions to be a uniquely female urge, and one that inhibits our professional successes. When was the last time you heard a man raise his hand in a board room and start his sentence with, “Now this is just my opinion, but…”? Right.

Agreed. In fact, communication research suggests that women too often use prefaces like “I think,” or “In my opinion” instead of simply moving directly into what they want to communicate, which takes away power, diminishes certainty, and reduces the value of the contribution. I understand and appreciate these honest approaches to communication. However, I’ve stopped using them almost completely when communicating with men. I’ll often write an email and then go back and edit out all of these prefaces and qualifiers.

any concerns about the fact that only 3 of 16 Scholarly Kitchen authors are female (based on my imprecise guessing via names/photos)?

As the Executive Editor, I’ll answer that question with an emphatic yes!

We have worked very hard over the years to recruit as many of our female colleagues as possible, and if we hadn’t done so in a confidential manner, it would be possible to share with you an extensive list who have turned us down over the years. Blogging is a lot of work, and it takes a certain personality type, whether male or female, that enjoys putting oneself out publicly in this sort of manner.

But we are always looking for keen minds and great writers, so if you, or anyone out there has suggestions for further “Chefs” (regardless of gender), please do send them along to

Thanks for the quick responses. I might suggest that being public about SK’s desire for more female chefs (and I hope for chefs of color as well) would be a good thing.

Thanks for various comments. I added the disclaimers as a preemptive response to some of the obvious criticisms that could be leveled at this piece rather than as an apology – but clearly this is not how everyone read it, so lesson learned.
Thanks for all the examples of senior women publishers too – as mentioned, I am not disputing the fact that there are a lot of very talented women in our industry, some of whom have quite rightly made it to the top. I would still argue, though, that considering the number of women working in our industry and the contributions they make, there should be many more – and that scholarly publishing would be the better for it.

Alice, as a point of fact, I joined Basil Blackwell at the end of 1986 as Sales & Marketing Director, which was a board position. My appointment was the first for a woman at board level within the entire Blackwell family of businesses When I left after more than 6 years, I was succeeded by a woman. 1986 must count as the ‘mid-1980s’.

Thanks Janet and hello again! I joined a couple of years before that so good to know that I remembered correctly that there were no women board members when I first started.

Another thought is that there’s not only a marked gender disparity between senior and junior positions, but also between acquisitions (overwhelmingly male, even at the editorial assistant/permanent intern entry level) and…well, pretty much everything else. It’s always a bit odd as an acquisitions person to hear people, especially our trade cousins, describe publishing as a female-dominated profession!

There’s also a question of who is supplying scholarly publishers. If the Kitchen is anything to judge by (and I’m pretty sure it is), scholarly publishing is dominated by STEM folks, especially in journals publishing – and students in STEM fields are overwhelmingly and stereotypicaly male. Perhaps the change we want to see in our field needs to start at an even lower level, with helping to diversify the academic disciplines (not only STEM, but also, say, philosophy, which has just as much of a gender imbalance) that train future publishers.

Finally, there are all sorts of other imbalances and barriers we as a profession might want to have a critical look at, in addition to our overwhelming white male-ness. Working long-term (even multi-year) unpaid internships after grad school or attending expensive graduate publishing programs at private universities in order to get a chance at a low-paying marketing/editorial/production assistant position in an expensive city like New York or Washington is a pretty serious obstacle to any but the most privileged.

Thanks Phill, I’m not sure how widespread the gender disparity in acquisitions is – that hasn’t been my experience, but it must vary by company. I’m also not sure that publishing is dominated by people from STEM backgrounds – I’m always surprised by how many of my colleagues who work in STEM publishing and are very knowledgeable about their subject areas, in fact come from humanities or social science backgrounds. But as shown in the Global Gender Index I referenced, you’re quite right that more work needs to be done in academia across all disciplines as well as within scholarly publishing.

The majority of my professional experience is in textbook publishing, where women work at the highest corporate levels in many different capacities. In my 10 years in scholarly publishing, I have noticed that the majority of high level women executives seem to work in Communications or HR. Those talented women deserve accolades for their accomplishments, their perseverance, and the value (and values) they bring to scholarly publishing, but the women who follow them up the ladder and through the glass ceiling shouldn’t be relegated into pre-determined “pink-collar” executive vp slots. I fear that as scholarly presses hire more and more IT executives (the majority of whom are currently men), the short-term picture for gender parity in our board rooms and corner suites doesn’t look promising. I look forward to the day when “Could do better” is replaced with “Woman CEO? Duh!”

While my company, Elsevier, certainly has more work to do in this department, there are amazing women at the helm of many of our business units. Suzanne BeDell is MD for Science and Technology Books. Emilie Marcus is CEO and Ed-in-Chief of Cell Press, and there are many VP- and SVP-level women who have vision and who will no doubt be candidates for MD roles. Is the problem that many of these women I speak of focus first on getting stuff done and second on advancing careers?

Great post, Alice! I have one comment and some additional food for thought.

First, at the end of The Royal Society (Edinburgh, Scotland) video “A Chemical Imbalance”–well worth taking the time to watch–there is a prediction that it will take 70 years for equality to come to fruition. That puts it into the lifetime of our great-grandchildren. We have made a fair amount of strides with our somewhat consistent push since the 1970s….the prediction suggests that, as in so many other advancements, it is the last mile that is the hardest and takes the longest. I think this is all too true if one expands that prediction to the fullest global sense rather than as I presume a focus on nations now heavily engaged in professional and scholarly pursuits.

Second, there is another area within scholarly publishing as a whole that needs to be recognized for its gender inequality. Morton and Sonnad published an excellent study (focused in the area of medicine) “Women on Professional Society and Journal Editorial Boards” (available at: Their conclusion: “Women’s representation on society and editorial boards does not always reflect their presence in medical specialties, and it is critically lacking in certain specialties. Efforts should be made to attain parity of women leaders on these boards. Further efforts should be made to eliminate barriers to women’s leadership in medicine.”

Finally, historical fact supports a similar conclusion in all scientific areas. Of the 357 people awarded a Nobel Prize in science (Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, & Economic Sciences) only 16 have been women. Only one, Marie Curie, has won two: the first with her husband in 1903 and the second when she alone was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Women are half of the world’s population yet men hold the lion’s share of jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, & mathematics) fields & receive most of the prestigious scientific awards including the Nobel, the ultimate mark of scientific achievement. The reason women who deserve prizes are overlooked – few of their peers step up to nominate them – and women seldom nominate themselves.

Taken as a whole, there is little wonder that we have achieved relatively few positions of influence, leadership, and preeminence in the scholarly publishing community. There was a saying started in the mid-1970s still appropriate today: “A woman must be four times better than a man to be considered half as good.”

My thanks to the men who supported my early career efforts (most especially my former boss and mentor Dr. Sheldon Terrant, then Head, R&D Department, American Chemical Society) and taught me the importance of hiring the best possible candidate for the job “be it male, female, or a purple giraffe.”

Thanks Barbara and I absolutely agree that this is not just an issue in scholarly publishing but also on editorial and society boards. I hope that it won’t take as long as 70 years to correct though – at least not in our community. There are some causes for optimism – SSP, for example, has been great at identifying and encouraging women board members and presidents, at least in the last few years while I’ve been involved. During my three-year board tenure the president was always a woman, and the board itself was at least half female if not more.

SSP’s increasing recognition and support of women has been a point of pride. Out of the 16 founders, 5 of us are women so to see this percentage grow is very, very encouraging. It will be great to see this in other publishing industry organizations where involvement of women at the board level has been lacking. Perhaps SSP will serve as an example worthy of emulation.


16 out of 357.

Even allowing for the early years of the 20th century, when women had restricted access to medical schools – and academia more generally (even though Marie Curie won 2 of those 16 in the first decade of the Nobel’s existence) – that’s a jaw-dropping shocker of a stat.

Thanks for the excellent article, Alice. I’ve noticed in my years in scholarly publishing that there are some organizations that support and even reinforce the “old-boys network” and its related activities at the highest levels, despite talking the talk of gender – equality and, I think, mostly really believing it – in theory. It is much harder to actually give up the male bonding and privilege and that comes with having an all (or mostly)-male inner circle than it is espouse organizational support for women in management positions. To make things even more difficult, I’m not sure that the organizational (and dare I say societal?) changes that having more women in power could bring are fully embraced, so there is little appetite to make real changes. So, “getting more women into management positions” becomes a cultural and HR objective that everyone feels good about standing behind, but it is enacted at the very top in only token ways, or more commonly, exclusively at the lower and middle management levels. I believe that most people in our industry have only good intentions; they just may be seeing only part of the truth. So, it remains our responsibility to speak truth to power.

Here’s another way to change the situation: use it to gain competitive advantage. The numbers imply a pool of talent out there that is under-promoted and hence currently under-paid. Surely a company that recruits from that pool stands to out-compete companies with discriminatory talent acquisition policies?

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