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Baroness Gail Rebuck DBE: How I broke through publishing’s ‘glass ceiling’

OPINION: 'Other forms of diversity still remain a key issue and all publishers have established urgent measures to address this'

19 November, 2021 — By Baroness Gail Rebuck

Baroness Gail Rebuck

BOTH my parents left school at 13 and always embraced a strong work ethic.

My mother, from a working class family and the eldest of five, had to start earning her keep at a young age and trained as a hairdresser.

My father, the youngest of four, was destined to help in the family business, established by his father, a refugee who arrived in the UK alone at 15, illiterate and penniless but a skilled tailor.

My first Saturday job was at 15 and I might have added a year to my birthdate!

I was the first in my family to go to university and my parents thought that spending another three years surrounded by books was a waste of time, having tolerated my obsession when young with Saturday visits to the local library and storing up enough books in my bedroom to last me through the week.

University was my eye opener to the world of possibilities that I had only dreamt of in my bedroom reading.

I wanted to work with words but in those days the only way into publishing was as a secretary.  The snag was that I could not type or do shorthand.

A six-week course gave me the rudimentaries and I somehow got my first publishing job as a production assistant in a children’s book packager in Islington.

Once in, I lobbied for other opportunities – and they came – twice in start-ups, where I literally had to create a book commissioning job around me.

These were not traditional publishers but innovative companies where the future could be imagined.

It led eventually to co-founding a publishing house with four colleagues called Century.

Through a series of acquisitions, we wound up as Random House (now Penguin Random House) and I was asked to become the CEO of this incredible collection of literary and commercial publishing imprints in 1991.

It was the first time a woman had been asked to run a mini conglomerate in the UK and it was significant that the person who appointed me was an American, as women had already broken through the glass ceiling across the Atlantic.

I remained CEO for 22 years, refreshing my perspective by becoming a non-executive of other media companies and launching charities for the book industry including World Book Day for children and Quick Reads for adult emergent readers.

Today, I mentor many women in the creative industries and I love seeing their careers advance and flourish and the large amount of talent they bring.

Women now make up well over 50 per cent of management in UK publishing, although other forms of diversity still remain a key issue and all publishers have established urgent measures to address this.

The four largest publishing houses in the UK are currently run by men but I’m delighted that a woman and former colleague will be taking the helm at one of them in the New Year to the welcome sound of the glass ceiling shattering once again.

• Baroness Gail Rebuck, DBE is the former CEO of Random House book publishers and lives in Regent’s Park

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