Overcoming Sexism in Publishing: An Interview with Erin Cox

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The world of publishing has traditionally been considered a boys’ club. Yet when Erin Cox moved to New York to work in publishing, she was confident that she could make her chosen career work for her. More than a decade later, she reflects on the things she’s learned to shed light on an ongoing challenge for women in business.

Gender inequality in business is one of the most enduring issues facing women today. It’s a topic that comes up repeatedly in conversations about equal pay and professional advancement. In the fields of media and publishing, several organizations have taken steps to address this issue and to increase representation of women in all levels of the industry. The latest statistics from organizations like VIDA are certainly encouraging in this respect.

But according to publishing executive Erin Cox, while the statistics are important, they are not the whole picture. For Cox, who began as a publicity assistant at Scribner and spent several years managing the business side of The New Yorker before working her way into her current self-made role of consultant, publicist, and literary agent, the main issue is that women believe they will be limited in their career options and therefore tend to limit themselves.

 

AWT: Tell us a little bit about your background, both personal and professional.

Erin Cox: I’m the second of two kids and I grew up with a father who was in sales and marketing. The way I was raised was that you could be anything you want to be. I’m much more like my father than I am like my mother, so I went to work with my dad, saw what he did for a living, and I had a good sense of what business was. Then I went to college and because I loved to read and loved to talk about ideas, I double majored in English and history. I thought I would be a literature professor. And then the head of the English department said, “Actually, it’s really, really competitive. Of the seven people who graduated from Yale with a Ph.D., only four have jobs.” And to me, coming from a business background, I thought: I can’t lay around in my parents’ den and be a poet or something. I need to work in business, I need to do something, I need to make money.

 
“If I work hard and I create a good network and I have good ideas, I can always make something happen. I don’t know what a glass ceiling is.”
 

AWT: Did you feel that it was tough to break into the publishing industry as a woman?

Erin Cox: I’ve always worked for really strong women in publishing and I never really thought much about them being women. I just thought they were great role models for me in business. They were smart, they asked good questions, they were creative—all of the things that I wanted to be. I worked with Carolyn Reidy, who at the time was the president of the adult group at Scribner [where I was working] and I would see her every week at the marketing meeting. She would ask really compelling questions and she challenged men in senior positions around the table. There was no consideration for their gender or her gender. And I always felt like I was getting the same kind of respect from her that my male peers were and I never for one second even considered my gender. That’s how I’ve always felt throughout my career: I can do anything I want to do if I just set my mind to it. And if I work hard and I create a good network and I have good ideas, I can always make something happen. I don’t know what a glass ceiling is.

AWT: In a recent piece you wrote for Publishing Perspectives you talk about bringing on gender bias by expecting it to happen. That’s somewhat of a reversal of what we’ve heard before. To what extent do you think there are real barriers to contend with, and to what extent do we create them?

Erin Cox: If you think that there’s a wall in front of you, you’re going to naturally avoid it. Or you’re going to naturally stop yourself before you hit it. I think that there’s some timidity there along the lines of, “You’re going to stop me at some point.” Instead of just barreling through like a freight train. Some of that’s just my personality in that I want to do what I want to do and nobody’s going to stop me. But some of that is that I do have a right to be in this place and I do have a right to have these ideas and I do have a right to have this job. With some of my peers, I think it’s sometimes self-doubt that stops them.

When I was first starting in publicity, I had a peer who was shy, a little bit quiet, incredibly smart, way smarter than I am. She had really creative ideas, she was a great writer, but when it came to talking in meetings, she hated it. She would say the bare minimum. And people started to sort of marginalize her because of that. I don’t know how much of it was because she was a woman, but they tended to go to the man in our department before her, and they tended to come to me as well. It ended up stymieing her career a little bit.

 
“Publishing used to be the place you went before you got married. You went to Yale and then you worked as an editorial assistant for two, three years and then you married a hedge fund manager.”
 

AWT: In the same article, you make a really interesting point about women increasingly having the confidence to go for jobs they haven’t gone for before. How have you seen this dynamic shift while you’ve been in the business?

Erin Cox: There are definitely departments in publishing that tend to be more male-dominated. That’s editorial usually and often sales. But publicity and marketing are almost entirely women. I think women are holding way more management roles now. They’re not all the CEOs—I mean Carolyn Reidy is the only CEO of one of the “big five” companies—but there are really senior people at Random House and there are very senior people at MacMillan, so there are definitely women who have very senior management roles. And there are definitely more women throughout the ranks.

Publishing used to be the place you went before you got married. You went to Yale and then you worked as an editorial assistant for two, three years and then you married a hedge fund manager. Because publishing doesn’t traditionally pay very well, if you don’t have four roommates or somebody paying your bills, you can’t really afford to live. I think that a lot of that has changed fairly dramatically, so that gives more opportunity.

We’re also as an industry trying to focus more on diversity. That is bringing in a lot of different voices and that will change the dialogue both for women and for people of color, for transgender or homosexual people or people on all of these spectrums. I think we’re opening up the door for a lot of people to just say, “It doesn’t matter who I am, I can do this job and I can do it really well. And I want to be able to be a part of this conversation.” As I said, I don’t think about my gender very often, I think about the stories that I want to tell and the stories I want to hear because that’s what our industry is supposed to be based on—sharing this information and these stories. I just try to do that the best I can.

AWT: What’s been your biggest business lesson to date?

Erin Cox: One of the things that I learned is to be flexible. Business (particularly the publishing industry and any kind of media company) is changing really dramatically. I’ve always approached business like an incredible puzzle. You have to be flexible and you have to be able to see things from different areas and say, “Oh, this is the opportunity, this is the thing I should go after, or this is the thing I should pull back on.” I don’t always make the right decisions. But if you don’t try and if you don’t go at it 100 percent, you might miss some chances and you might not fulfill some great dreams.

Something I also realized midway through my career is that the idea of success I had when I was first starting out in publishing is not the idea of success that I have now. Success for me is to be happy and to be working on projects that really inspire me or interest me. I have all of these great, deep-thinking projects that are really challenging and varied. I get to do a lot of interesting things and I get to meet a lot of really interesting people, and I get to travel the world doing that. None of these opportunities would have come together if I’d stayed in-house somewhere. It’s been a fun ride, but it’s because I was flexible.

 
“Know what you want for yourself and go for it. People will be naysayers along the way and people may try and stop you from doing it.”
 

AWT: What’s your best advice for women trying to make it in media or publishing?

Erin Cox: I think probably the best thing is to have someone that you admire. I was lucky in that I had great examples of really strong women in my industry that I really admired. When you hear that voice inside of you going, “I feel that glass ceiling or I feel something is weighing on me,” think about what this person would do. Would this person be worried about that? Maybe not. So maybe I should be more like that person. At least to just get you over the hump until you do have that confidence.

Know what you want for yourself and go for it. People will be naysayers along the way and people may try and stop you from doing it, but I always had a one-year, five-year, 10-year plan of what I wanted to do. Now it’s sort of out the window because it’s changing so much and I do so many different things. But I used to always have that and go: Every day I have to make sure I’m moving towards these things. You can’t get caught up in the day-to-day mishegas.

 

This article originally appeared in the Wild issue. For more inspiring stories about women, check out The Fight to Protect Thailand’s Elephants and Inner Conflict: Story of a Woman in the Military.