Women in Publishing: A Late-Year Discussion at Guadalajara

In News by Porter Anderson

The IPA’s Bodour Al Qasimi encourages ‘equal opportunities for women over equality with men’ in a gender-diversity discussion in Mexico.

From left, Ana María Olabuenaga, Bodour Al Qasimi, and Marisol Schulz speak at Guadalajara International Book Fair on women in world publishing. Image: Nabs Ahmedi

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

The Founder of PublisHer on Perceptions of Women
This year, international book publishing has seen extensive attention to women in the world industry, with a specific emphasis on a gradual but slow arrival of women in the business’ top executive roles.

In many if not most markets, women clearly dominate the book publishing workforce, and in many markets, this can include directorial-level management positions held by women. The top-level roles, however, continue to be held primarily by men—with some notable exceptions—even as many publishing companies and associations commit to energetic programs to increase diversity in their ranks.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the United Arab Emirates publisher Bodour Al Qasimi is the outgoing president of the International Publishers Association (IPA). She is only the second woman to hold that position in the IPA’s 125 years, the first being Argentina’s Ana Maria Cabanellas, whose experiences in leading the organization were between 2004 and 2008.

The IPA leadership continues with a woman at the helm in 2023, when Brazil’s Karine Pansa begins her two-year presidency. The association’s vice-president is also a woman, the Republic of Georgia’s Gvantsa Jobava. By tradition, a vice-president is largely assured of moving into the presidency in the organization’s pattern of two-year terms.

And in one of the final appearances of her presidency, Al Qasimi at Mexico’s 36th Guadalajara International Book Fair—which closed earlier this month—joined the author Ana María Olabuenaga and the fair’s director general Marisol Schulz, who hosted a panel discussion titled “East and West: Women in the World.” The discussion surfaced an interesting point that some might see as a kind of qualifier to the industry’s understanding of its efforts in gender diversity and inclusion.

Al Qasimi emphasized the need for “equal opportunities for men, as opposed to equality with men.”

What that perspective might do is take some of the head-counting pressure off an industry struggling to find the fastest and most authentic ways to diversify itself in terms of racial and ethnic composition, socio-economic balance, generational considerations, and more, not only in leadership gender.

Progress, where it happens, seems slow, as many in publishing envision a workforce that looks much more like its consumer base.

Unconscious Bias, Even in Addressing Bias

Bodour Al Qasimi and Marisol Schulz at Mexico’s Guadalajara International Book Fair, November 29. Image: FIL Guadalajara, Paula Vasquez

Al Qasimi’s establishment in March 2019 of the international network for women in publishing, PublisHer, signaled the importance she’d place on issues of gender diversity in the business during her two-year term that began in 2020. As with any intelligent social and business movement, the character of Al Qasimi’s messaging has evolved, often in ways that open its arguments to a wider community—as perhaps her “equal opportunities, not equality” clarification does.

For example, in September, she joined journalist and author Anne Applebaum and the writer and theorist Francis Fukuyama in speaking at Portugal’s Estoril Conferences. There, she told an audience of hundreds of young adults about a case in which a male writer found that he could sell his poetry to publishers by using “a non-Caucasian female” pen name instead of his own. The market, it appears in this case, was receptive to the idea of an Asian woman’s poetic work, but was not interested in the same poetry from a white male writer.

What Al Qasimi was doing, of course, was opening to men as well as women an understanding of the fact that discrimination can run in many directions–and is good for no one.

“Prejudice is prejudice,” she told the conference in Portugal, “no matter who is at the receiving end. And prejudice damages societies, alienates whole communities, and threatens our social peace and cohesiveness. More importantly, prejudice denies many people opportunity—the opportunity to achieve their human potential and live a fulfilled life.”

Those who are reading or have read Richard V. Reeves‘ new book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It (Brookings Institution Press, September 27) will understand the broader framework in which Al Qasimi is setting the question of gender in book publishing and many other industries.

There’s such a thing as unconscious bias not just in how we see each other but even in how we might expect an effort to handle diversity issues should go. Reeves in his book catalogues myriad ways that men and boys are falling behind in career, education, family life, self-esteem, and society, slipping behind women and girls in a growing number of criteria. The statistics are compelling, and Reeves’ book is a call for awareness and contemplation at international scale.

“Doing more for boys and men does not require an abandonment of the ideal of gender equality,” he writes. “In fact, it is a natural extension of it. The problem with feminism, as a liberation movement, is not that it has ‘gone too far.’ It is that it has not gone far enough. Women’s lives have been recast. Men’s lives have not.”

In her comments, Al Qasimi pointed out that her Kalimat Foundation based in Sharjah—which specializes in providing literature both to refugee children and to children with reading disabilities—works explicitly to be sure that both boys and girls in refugee camps are receiving pertinent educational content.

She also spoke to the challenges that she has experienced as an Arab woman, pointing to “an unrealistic perception of women in the Arab world.”

Her advice to those in the Guadalajara audience was to highlight not only the struggles of women in so many societies but stories of women’s success and achievement. She spoke of hearing stories when she was a child about “female leaders from Islamic and Arab history.”

“Prejudice damages societies, alienates whole communities, and threatens our social peace and cohesiveness. More importantly, prejudice denies many people opportunity–the opportunity to achieve their human potential and live a fulfilled life.”Bodour Al Qasimi, IPA

Publishing Perspectives understands that she’s mulling an idea of presenting these stories in various languages to propose a better image of Arab women internationally.

Similar to Al Qasimi’s description of her culture’s views of women, the Mexican author, Olabuenaga, recalled her father’s response when she was born: he was disappointed to have a daughter, not a son, she said. At the time, the cultural landscape into which a girl was born could elicit such a reaction in many homes, as it might even today in parts of the world.

The session indicated what may be a point in gender-equality debates that almost everyone can agree on: being able to talk about challenges women confront in business, at home, at school, is the first step to facing bias, conscious or otherwise, and addressing it.

In 2023, based on conversations from this year, if the trend can continue toward making discussions themselves more inclusive and less “us vs. them,” there may be more, and faster, progress ahead.

More relative to the Guadalajara International Book Fair:
Rights Edition: At Guadalajara, Spanish-Language Publishers Eye the US Market
Guadalajara: CANIEM’s Seminar on Accessible Publishing
Guatemala’s Raúl Figueroa Sarti Fêted at Guadalajara

During FIL Guadalajara: Springer Nature Announces a Transformative Agreement in Mexico
Guadalajara International Book Fair Opens With Cărtărescu’s Award
Guadalajara International Book Fair Prepares Weekend Opening
AAP Gives Venezuela’s Sergio Dahbar Its 2022 Freedom to Publish Award
Guatemala’s F&G Editores Wins AAP’s Freedom to Publish Award

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Guadalajara Book Fair is here, more on the Arab world and its publishing industry and literature is here, more from us on the PublisHer network is here, and more on women in publishing is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the International Publishers Association.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.