Of the 200 best-selling business books of the year, only 17 were written by women. This equates to the number of commercial bestsellers written by men named John or Jon. (And this phenomenon is not unique to book listings – research has shown that men named John outnumber women. which are Fortune 500 general managers and other high level positions.)
Top Women’s Headlines in 2020, according to sales data from NPD Group / NPD BookScan, includes new releases from Suze Orman (The Ultimate Guide to Retirement for 50+) and older books by Brené Brown (Dare to lead) and Sheryl Sandberg (Bend over). The female authors on the list are predominantly white. Shellye Archambeau, who wrote Ambitious without any excuse: take risks, break down barriers and create success on your own terms, is one of the few women of color.
It’s nothing new to see women underrepresented on these business bestseller lists – and the problem is getting worse. In 2019, women authors occupied 11.5% of places and in 2018, 13%. Unfortunately, this year their share has fallen to 8.5%. One of the best-selling business books for 2020 written by a man is about the ugly Elizabeth Holmes, founder and former CEO of Theranos – it seems like a story of businesswomen that people love to hear over and over again is that of their failure.
Why is the absence of women, especially BIPOC women, a problem? Because it distorts everyone’s perception of what the ideal leader and innovator looks like. It adds to the tired narrative that women don’t dare to take risks. Changing who we choose to post and read is an urgent step to correct this false narrative and expand business opportunities for women around the world.
Editors have a long-standing fondness for business books written by white men who are CEOs of big companies, high-ranking military leaders and renowned professors – so it’s no surprise that we end up with so many of bestsellers written by the same. In May, when entrepreneur and investor Kathryn Finney announced that she was writing a book For Portfolio, Penguin’s business imprint, she said she was the first black woman to strike a deal with the two-decade-old imprint.
Arlan Hamilton is a prominent venture capitalist who in 2018 tweeted that she was tired of seeing the commercial sections of bookstores filled with titles of white men. “I swear to help change that,” she wrote at the time. She gave birth in May with her book It’s time: how to turn underestimation into your greatest advantage.
Hamilton did not go to college. Instead, she relied on books to begin her self-study in startups and venture capital. A favorite was Business offers by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson. While these books were invaluable to her, Hamilton, a black lesbian, complained that she couldn’t read someone’s business advice.who looked like me or looked like me. “
I’ve spent the past four years researching the gender gap in entrepreneurship, interviewing over 100 women and non-binary entrepreneurs, and they told me how crucial it is to have models that look and sound like them. Yet women who want to start a business or simply work for a large corporation often struggle to find success stories to emulate.
Women are too often absent from business school case studies and even like competitors on Shark aquarium. An informal survey published by Electric Literature last year found that only a small fraction of women’s memoirs focus on work; rather they focus on family life or trauma. Media coverage of women in business has suffered exasperating missteps. In September 2019, when Forbes released its list of America’s Most Innovative Leaders with 102 Founders and CEOs, only one of whom was a woman.
In response, more than 50 female CEOs signed an open letter to express their frustration: “A list like this also has important repercussions. It determines who is selected for boards, which candidates can interview, who speaks at conference podiums and who gets funds for their next gig. I would add that this influences who gets book deals.
Women are not snubbed for their lack of business acumen. Startups founded by women produce higher income than those launched by men and get faster exits. Companies with female CEOs and CFOs see higher profits and stock returns.
And it’s not just about being “fair”. Men, especially those who work for female bosses, would also benefit from reading more examples of successful female entrepreneurs. Men need female role models just as much as women.
We need to rethink who we publish, who we review and who we read. The Jo (h) ns had their turn.
Susanne Althoff is Assistant Professor of Publishing at Emerson College, former Editor-in-Chief of Boston Globe Magazine, and the author of the new book Launch as a woman: breaking the system that holds back women entrepreneurs.
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