English-language publishing in India is probably the only industry in the country where women dominate the top positions at several of the leading publishers. Does this mean they do things differently from men?

We spoke to five of the women publishers: Chiki Sarkar of Penguin Random House India; Diya Kar Hazra of Bloomsbury India, Karthika VK of HarperCollins India;, Sayoni Basu of Duckbill Books; and Poulomi Chatterjee of Hachette India.

On whether having a woman as publisher influences the choice of books published, and whether women publishers do things differently from men.

Sarkar: I have never considered this. I am sure it does, though not in the obvious ways. Having girl publishers doesn’t mean only a certain kind of novel or cookbooks, etc., get published. Publishing is about individual tastes, not gender – and this question is relevant in that sense. The person who’s buying determines tastes.

Kar Hazra: We have enough male colleagues to strike a balance, actually. For our international trade list, the manuscripts we want to buy are read and discussed by all of us before a decision is taken. In any case, agents tend to approach the right editor for a particular book, gender notwithstanding – someone who will best understand and love the work. Though I think it’s more about the individual than gender, women are largely better at empathy and at adapting, at not letting their ego get in the way of decisions.

Karthika: I don't think there is any overt or conscious decision-making based on gender. Remember there is a team that decides, not an individual, and there are as many men as women who constitute that team. I can only think that male and female editors bring very similar qualities to their work: an open mind, a nuanced awareness of the world, an ability to cut through to what matters, to identify and rectify dissonance, and a genuine warmth and empathy when it comes to writers and their work. I don't think a male-female stereotype works when it comes to any of these. But yes, perhaps my style of management is shaped in some ways by my gender. I know I empathise when a colleague needs to work from home because her kids need her, or when someone needs to take a parent to the doctor or even just take some time off for themselves – and perhaps that has something to do with my responding, in these situations, not as a manager so much as a manager who is also a mother, daughter, wife.

Basu: Not consciously. If anything, in the field of publishing for children and young adults, one is consciously looking for male authors and male protagonists because there tend to be fewer of those. And common wisdom says boys will only read books about boys (not proven in our experience, but who knows?).

Chatterjee: I don’t think it affects the choice of books in any way. The choice has to do with having read widely and the kind of list that one would want to publish or the publishing philosophy. There’s no bias in general, but there might be a deliberate choice in some cases – a certain kind of book that I would want to publish because it’s an issue I would want written about. So it might make that choice because I’m a woman. But that’s not to say a man in my place wouldn’t feel strongly about the same issue. I don’t think the difference is by virtue of being a woman but by virtue of being the person one is. It’s not a gender-based difference. Any differences in functioning, in decision-making, aren’t necessarily gender-based but a matter of individuality or how each person leads or works in a team. However we function, the decisions we take – whether it’s about the books we publish or financial or business decisions or even building a team – would have to give good results for the company.

On how it came about that publishing has so many women in senior positions

Sarkar: Because more women enter publishing. This is connected to the fact that more men in india are still under pressure to have high-paying jobs.

Kar Hazra: Publishing involves a lot of nurturing. Women make good midwives.

Karthika: We all know that publishing isn't the highest paid profession and it was even less so a decade ago. It's also true that the humanities in India have long been a space that attracts more women than men. Combine those two factors and we may have an answer.

Basu: Women are smarter? And they work for lower pay?

Chatterjee: In India our career choices are determined by certain set factors. Things are changing now but i think most men up to this point would not think of publishing as a career option straight off.

On whether this is an opportunity to influence people’s thinking about gender positions

Karthika: Every single opportunity I get! At meetings or even in casual conversation sometimes, when something is said that threatens to cross a line, or veer towards sexism of any sort, I tend to intervene almost instantly. It's surprising how often and how carelessly we speak in binaries and stereotypes, and it's wonderful to be in a workplace full of women who are quick to respond too. Also, we spend so much time thinking through and analysing multiple perspectives, the idea of gender, as also other kinds of positions that writers, readers and editors profess, comes in for a great deal of discussion and we often question and correct our own and each others' biases as we go along.

Basu: I do feel that it is. But eventually, we are only publishers; it is the author who writes the story. And while we prefer feisty girl characters, we also like feisty boy characters. (Non-feisty protagonists are perhaps an oxymoron!) But we have on occasion pointed out to authors that their female characters are a bit door-mattish, something which seldom happens with male characters (both the authors in question were male!).

Chatterjee: Yes, I suppose it is. Books, any portrayal really, mirror our society, lives, our history, and, whether subtly or overtly, show us truths about many aspects, gender positions among them. Some bits of such truths are bound to stick in readers’ minds and set about a thinking process – even if they don’t have a decisive or immediate influence as such (or so one hopes, certainly!).

On whether there’s a risk of ‘male’ interests not being addressed sufficiently

Sarkar: There are girls who might like ‘male’ stuff – sport, crime, etc., just as some of the best cookery editors abroad are men.

Kar Hazra: Our sports list is published by Charlotte Atyeo, a woman. And I don’t see science fiction or thrillers as being male genres. We have plenty of women publishing, reading and writing in these genres. In a recent interview, Kamila Shamsie talked about why more men tend to win book awards. She pointed out that men read more male writers whereas women read both, so the men will have been read by both men and women, which increases their chances. So you see, male interests seem to be addressed more than adequately.

Karthika: I can tell you that the best read among us when it comes to sci-fi and almost all genre fiction is a female editor, so that's a stereotype I don't buy into at all.

Basu: I do not really think that sports, science fiction and thrillers are the preserve of male readers (we publish books science fiction, thrillers and fiction about sports). At the recent World Book Fair, we were pleasantly surprised at how many girls bought books we had thought were of male interest (zombies, in particular!) and how many boys bought coming-of-age novels with female protagonists. But as I said before, there is a belief that more girls read than boys do, so we are always on the lookout for books which we feel will draw in a reluctant reader.

Chatterjee: I don’t think so. Someone who has to run a publishing list has to think of the entire range she wants to publish for the company. It depends on the publishing philosophy of the company. When you become the head you already know you have to work across a range of areas, or not. There wouldn't be a gender-based neglect of a particular area.