The Female Lead and Gail Rebuck
The Female Lead features portraits of 50 inspirational women, all leaders in their field, who changed the world around them, to inspire a generation of young women. Baroness Gail Rebuck, Chair of Penguin Random House, features in the book, so we caught up with her to talk through her hopes, ambitions and female role models that helped shape her career.
The Female Lead aims to inspire women everywhere to realise their hopes and ambitions. What motivated and inspired you to get in to publishing?
I did not come from a bookish family. My parents both left school at 13 so I was the first person in my family to go to university. I studied Intellectual History at Sussex in the early 70s and was introduced to the work of Lukacs at a lecture and became intrigued by the power of writers to transcend the present and intuit the future. The creative imagination became my obsession so a career in books seemed the right choice. I have always thought book publishing was a vocation rather than a job – a view I am sure is shared by most people in publishing.
You feature in The Female Lead as one of the inspirational women who have changed the world in a variety of fields. Did you ever imagine this would happen when you were setting out on your career path?
Not at all! I started my career as a Production Assistant; making sure illustrated children’s books got printed and distributed to international publishers. I then worked as an editor for a guide book publisher. This was not an auspicious beginning. But I got a lucky break when I was headhunted to start a paperback imprint which led directly to the launch of Century in 1982 where I was one of the Founder Directors. We merged with Hutchinson in 1985 and were bought by Random House in 1989. The rest is history.
What three characteristics/aspects of your personality have been key to reaching where you are now?
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever been given?
Follow your instincts and don’t be afraid to fail. Be confident enough to speak up and let your views be known and always do more than is asked for you.
This book focuses on strong female leaders. Have you had any key female role models? If so, who?
I have had many female role models through my career.
The first was Yve Newbold who worked for the Hanson Trust when I was a teenager. I went to a talk of hers when she was a lone businesswoman in a man’s world. She was very funny and said there would never be true equality until there were as many mediocre women running companies as there were men. This has stayed with me for over 40 years!
Other role models were Carmen Callil, founder of Virago, Marjorie Scardino, the first woman CEO of a FTSE 100 company, Martha Lane Fox, for entrepreneurial spirit and resilience, and Sheryl Sandberg for showing how vulnerability can be a huge strength.
What book has changed your life?
I first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude when I was a student. It was like seeing the world through a technicolour lens.
Do you feel like your gender has impacted on your career in any way?
It has been a positive and a negative. I have often been the only woman in a management meeting or at the Board table. I have suffered from extreme sexism (and kept a diary of remarks!) and have also experienced truly enlightened and egalitarian environments. I have been lucky enough to be recognised for my contribution overall, not held back by my gender and publishing has been a good industry for women from that perspective.