For many business experts these days, publishing a book is a necessary (though by no means a sufficient) condition for establishing a reputation. But there’s something interesting going on with the gender mix.
On the day I did my spot-check, 1 February , 17 of the top 20 authors in the business category of Amazon.com were men; and of the three women, two were writing about the virtues of decluttering. By contrast, on the same day the top 10 names on the fiction authors’ list were female.
What’s going on here? What stops women succeeding with business books, when they’re obviously flying off the fiction shelves?
It starts with the decision to write a book at all. Throughout my career as a commissioning editor I consistently received more book proposals from men than women. When you write a book you are effectively saying to the world: “Listen to me. I’m the expert and have something to say worth hearing.” So what is holding women back from taking that bold step?
I put the question out there to my clients and on social media and there was a surprising consensus over the top three blockers women have to overcome to write a book:
‘Who am I to write a book?’
This was the most common obstacle cited by women who had actually written their books; perhaps it’s simply not recognised by those who haven’t. It’s not limited to writing, of course: Emma Watson, Tina Fey and Sheryl Sandberg have all admitted they suffer from “imposter syndrome”. That is oddly heartening: clearly simply feeling as though you’re a fraud doesn’t have to stop you hitting the top of your game.
One very perceptive woman started to tell me that finding time was the problem, and immediately corrected herself: it’s actually making time (nobody in business just “finds” time lying around) and preserving it from competing priorities that’s the problem. This is closely linked to guilt: several women told me they felt selfish for carving out time away from their family and domestic tasks “just to write”. For a woman struggling to balance running a business or a high-powered job with cooking nutritious meals, supervising homework and ensuring everyone leaves the house dressed in the morning something has to give, and writing is usually the first casualty.
So, so many fears emerged. Fear of upsetting someone, of making a mistake and being publicly shamed; of the book not being liked – because that would mean its writer wasn’t liked, and for many women that is truly terrifying. We make our way in the world largely on our likeability.
Sheryl Sandberg put her finger on it in Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead when she describes the voice in her head, a voice shared by so many successful women: “Don’t flaunt your success, or even let people know about your success. If you do, people won’t like you.”
The recent The Psychology of Entrepreneurship report from Barclays showed that while small businesses run by women averaged higher pre-tax profits, only 42% of female owners describe their business as prospering, compared to 62% of males. Don’t brag, says the little voice. Don’t show off. Don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable.
Why does it matter if we don’t have business books written by women? It matters because if we don’t address this, if we don’t find ways to draw out and express in writing women’s expertise, everybody loses. We’re left with this outdated, skewed perception of business as a boys’ game, and the next generation of women leaders are robbed of women who could have been their role models and inspiration.
One woman suggested the problem is really with the agents and publishers:Catherine Nichols recently reported that her novel got a more enthusiastic response when submitted under a male pseudonym. Fiction writers from George Eliot to JK Rowling have disguised their gender in a bid to bypass the bias of both publishers and readers, but if you’re writing a non-fiction book to claim your expert authority then clearly writing a bestseller under a pseudonym is something of a pyrrhic victory.
But maybe that’s what’s happening. Maybe some of those authors of Amazon’s top 20 business books are women living double lives, hiding their true identities beneath a solid male name and a stock picture of a white middle-aged bloke and quietly raking in the royalties. It wouldn’t make it right, but it would certainly make it better.
Alison Jones is a writing coach, content consultant and publishing partner. She is chair of the Quantum Conference at the London Book Fair and speaks regularly at industry events on the future of publishing.