I was prompted to write this post back in 2013 because I had recently reached a point in my career when, instead of being surrounded by other women — above, below, and beside me in terms of seniority — the number of female role models was shrinking fast. As I wrote then, this was by no means unique to our industry. So, have things changed for the better since then? And are the suggestions for addressing the lack of women at the top of scholarly publishing I made then still relevant today?

One obvious sign of progress is the fact that two of the four largest scholarly publishers are now led by women: Elsevier (Kumsal Bayazit) and Taylor & Francis (Annie Callanan). The less good news is that, with the exception of Elsevier, which is now almost 50/50, with eight men and seven women, the leadership teams of the big four are still predominantly male (Springer Nature: six men, two women; Taylor & Francis: eight men, three women; and Wiley: seven men, four women). GIven that our industry is around 60-65% female, even Elsevier has a way to go before it is truly representative. And, based on the companies I’m familiar with, I’d put money on there still being many fewer women than men in the upper echelons of scholarly publishing.

In my original post, I suggested three ways to help change the situation, which I’ll briefly revisit now:

  1. Challenge the “meritocracy” — aka the myth that people are promoted based on their abilities. While there are clearly many very able individuals in leadership positions, there are also some who are less able and, even more importantly, many very talented and dedicated people who are overlooked time and again because of their gender (or the color of their skin, or a multitude of other factors, but that’s a whole other post). I’m still convinced that, as long as our organizations continue to be led by (mostly) white (mostly) men, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve equity without some form of carrots and/or sticks. The UK’s gender pay gap reporting requirements, enabling us to track the progress towards equity, are a step in the right direction.
  2. Value and reward diverse talents — “female” skills like relationship-building tend to be valued less than “male” ones like decisiveness, even though research continues to show that soft skills are critical to an organization’s success. It’s hard not to look at many of today’s leaders — especially in the political arena — and feel like in the wider world, at least, we have gone backwards on this front. I couldn’t easily find any evidence that soft skills are recognized and rewarded more now than they were in 2013, and would welcome any information on that.
  3. Walk the talk — as the people and organizations that publish and disseminate the research on, among other things, the lack of senior women managers*, we could and should do better at leading by example. While there is definitely still work to do, as noted, the fact that there are now women at the top of some of our largest companies is cause for (cautious!) optimism. Another reason to be at least somewhat cheerful is the number of women speakers at many of our industry conferences. I haven’t looked at this in detail recently, but a quick skim of conferences in the last six months shows that at least half of the speakers were women, other than at STM’s autumn meeting (11 men, four women speakers) and to a lesser extent APE (19 men, 14 women).

I can’t end this update without acknowledging both that there are many other inequities in scholarly publishing, and also that these don’t just affect staff, but also authors, reviewers, and others involved in the production of knowledge. As I continue to educate myself about these issues, I’m very grateful to the many individuals who have helped me better recognize and understand them, including the SSP DEI Committee.

*the subject of around 17,000 articles on Google Scholar since 2021 — remarkably similar to 2013

Why Aren’t There More Women at the Top in Scholarly Publishing?

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.

glass ceiling

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


27 Thoughts on "Revisiting: Why Aren’t There More Women at the Top in Scholarly Publishing?"

Scholarly publishing is 60-65% female? I’m curious why you aren’t arguing for trying to increase the number of men in the field, rather than trying to replicate that imbalance in the senior ranks as well. Surely Elsevier with its 50/50 ratio is a good end goal, rather than having “a way to go”?

I think the answer is in the title which asks about women “at the top”. It is not accurate to say that the piece is arguing to replicate the imbalance in lower ranks in the senior ranks – it is making the point that 50/50 in the senior leadership hasn’t been achieved yet. Elsevier is highlighted as an exception – so it seems entirely reasonable for the piece to say that there is “a way to go” to reach at least 50/50 balance in senior leadership.

That’s a valid question Steven. I would be happy to see more men entering scholarly publishing, however, like many other fields that are low paid at entry level, our industry attracts more women than men – even though, at every level, men are on average paid more than women (see, for example, https://www.thebookseller.com/news/entry-level-and-average-wage-gap-widens-gender-pay-gap-stagnates-salary-survey-finds-1295278). I believe we will continue to see more men at the top and fewer at the bottom of scholarly publishing unless or until both entry level pay increases AND we get better at valuing and rewarding the contributions of women.

Interesting editorial. It does make me wonder if a man would add a disclaimer with an invitation to be corrected by anyone who knows better. I don’t mean to be critical – it sounds exactly like something I would do with the intention of creating a welcoming environment for discussion and improved understanding. But does this limitations paragraph actually serve to negate that your opinion is well-researched and accurate?

Thanks for pointing this out Jess. If I was writing this post today I wouldn’t feel the need for a disclaimer, but back then I was quite anxious about claiming to be any kind of an expert. As far as I know, this was the first Scholarly Kitchen post on the topic and I expected (and to some extent got) a lot of pushback…

Came to the comments to see if anyone else had the same thought about that last paragraph! I think a lot of women can see ourselves doing something similar, despite knowing we shouldn’t feel the need to! To Alice’s point in her response to your comment, the mood was different in 2013!

Thanks for the post, and for the interesting data about the breakdown of men and women in leadership at the largest publishers and as conference speakers. “A way to go” indeed.

I realize this is entirely anecdotal, and is not intended to rebut the article, but my 9-year experience at Wolters Kluwer is marked by female leadership at the Executive level. I’m surprised the article didn’t at least give passing reference to Nancy McKinstry, the companies first female CEO and previously recognized as one of Forbes magazine’s 100 Most Powerful Women in Business.

Thanks for noting this Duncan – since this was just an update I didn’t have time to look at all the major publishers. Nancy McKinstry is a great example of a woman CEO and of course there are also several others, including Alison Mudditt at PLOS and Vicky Williams of Emerald. However, I still don’t see many examples of senior leadership teams that genuinely reflect the current gender balance in scholarly publishing. Per your website, Wolters Kluwer’s senior management team comprises five men and four women – a lot better than many, which is great, but I’d say there’s still room for improvement. Kudos to Alison who has, according to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s definition, achieved equality at PLOS with an all-woman executive team!

Also worth mentioning Frontiers. Not always the most popular publisher on this blog, but their CEO and Chief Publishing Officer are both female. According to their 2021 Progress Report:

“We live and breathe diversity, with employees of 62 different nationalities, of which 62% are women and 55% of the senior management positions are held by women.”

Thanks Florrie, and yes Frontiers is a good example. As mentioned, I know there are a number of women CEOs in scholarly publishing – and (without having researched this thoroughly) I believe there are more than were when I wrote this piece, which is great. But I don’t think pointing out the exceptions – even if there are more of them than there used to be – negates the underlying argument that women are still under-represented at the top of our industry. Less than before, perhaps, but it’s still a problem. And, as long as men continue to outnumber women in leadership teams (aka pipelines), the chances are they will continue to dominate…

“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.”

Biology is only a small part of women being the assumed primary caregivers of their progeny. This systemic issue can be alleviated by expecting men to take more active roles in raising their children. If the government subsidized childcare, that would help a lot too. I know that society’s assumptions aren’t the focus of this article, but why not acknowledge them instead of blaming them on supposed biological differences?

Thanks, Rachel, you’re absolutely right that biology isn’t the only factor and I should definitely have called that out. However, for many women having a baby is physically, emotionally, and mentally the most challenging thing we ever do. So, while I completely agree that a better support system is long overdue (the lack of legally enshrined parental leave in the US is a complete disgrace, for example), and would help enormously, it won’t solve everything.

Alice, I think one thing that has definitely changed in the years since you wrote this piece, and even since Simone, Jeri and I did the WE Survey — activism and commitment at all organizational levels, and a growing force for culture change. There are scores of people embedded in most organizations who are pushing leaders, colleagues, and stakeholders to do things differently, giving life to Margaret Mead’s observation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Don’t neglect naked capitalism. Companies try to hire the best people. You can’t do this if you exclude half the population. Avarice generally trumps personal bias when bias does not blind people to self-interest.

Thanks Susan, you are absolutely right to remind us that there is much more stronger awareness, commitment, and force for culture change today compared with nine years ago – and that’s a big step forward!
To your point, Joe, while you’re correct that there’s an economic (capitalist) imperative to hire the best people, I agree with Dr Joseph Williams (speaking at last year’s SSP) that we also have “a moral and ethical obligation” to address the systemic issues causing these inequities. He was talking about racism, but his comments are equally applicable to other forms of bias and discrimination.

Surely you are not suggesting that I disagree with that sentiment???

No of course not – sorry if you read it that way I was just trying to clarify that there’s a moral as well as an economic aspect to this.

Joe, I agree about naked capitalism and that companies seek to hire the “best” person. But it is how you assess the best person that has a lot of room for interpretation, and that feeds better outcomes. Things have generally operated on a standard that is shaped with a lot of embedded biases. I think that is changing, incrementally.

I think it’s also important to look at the types of roles that women in senior management tend to end up in – I’ve noticed (anecdotally) that senior women tend to be in areas like HR and DEI. It’s great that they get there, but it feels a bit like there are only certain areas where women are allowed to excel sometimes (those soft skills you mentioned). I could of course be way off, and this observation could be down to a confirmation bias on my part.

Thanks Laura, I would love to dig into this more as I suspect you’re right. Maybe I will try and find time to do a more thorough revisit of this post sometime!!

What a great post. I would also like to advocate that we rename the term “soft skills” as it implies femininity and therefore lack of leadership skills (as this post points out, the skills are beneficial in leadership rolls). I do not have an alternative suggestion, this Forbes article (https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2021/12/01/why-do-we-still-call-them-soft-skills/?sh=65b63a257ec4) suggests “professional skills,” but I understand there are white supremacist issues with that term as well.

Thanks Alexa – and yes! I can’t immediately think of an alternative but will be giving it some thought and would love to hear people’s suggestions.

Transversal skills? because they can typically be used in various businesses, not just in one area.

That’s an interesting one Anna! It prompted me to do what I should have done before and check on the definition of soft skills, which led me to Wikipedia where they also refer to them as core skills, which I quite like as a way of reflecting how essential they are (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_skills). I also wondered about just calling them people or interpersonal skills because they’re almost all about communications and relationships….

This is a great post and contains a message that cannot be restated enough.

I’d like to add that scholarly publishing isn’t just about the publishers. We shouldn’t forget the impressive range of support services and infrastructures that all have talented women at the top, either in an employed role or an elected one:

STM – Caroline Sutton
OASPA – Claire Redhead
Dryad – Jennifer Gibson
DOAJ – Joanna Ball
UKSG – Joanna Ball
LIBER – Jeannette Frey
ISSN – Gaelle Becquet
COPE – Natalie Ridgeway

(Conflict of interest: I am Operations Manager for DOAJ, am Secretary for the Board of OASPA, and have worked for COPE in the past.)

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