The Female Appeal in Public Relations

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Posted At: January 21, 2012 3:30 PM
by Alex and Megan Reichenbach

“The last 20 years have seen an influx of women into the practice of public relations, yet gender-based disparities in pay and advancement remain a troubling reality.” —Women in Public Relations: How Gender Influences Practice (2001) book description

According to Women in Public Relations: How Gender Influences Practice by Linda Hon, Larissa Grunig and Elizabeth Toth (2001), there has been an increase of women entering the PR industry, opening up more opportunities outside their traditional fields of nursing and teaching. But their chances of reaching managerial positions are still threatened because women are prone to be associated with lower salaries and statuses in the business.

Men vs. women: Relationship building

As reported in a Job.com article, “the PR workforce is made up of 85% of women.” This startling statistic clearly suggests that the public relations profession seems to appeal to women rather than men.

There has not been a proven reason for the majority of women in the industry, but there have been many speculations that support this finding.

In a German exploratory study conducted in 2007, Romy Frolich and Sonja B. Peters noted that “men lack crucial sensitivity and empathy toward maintaining relationships with clients, journalists and target groups”  (p. 240).

Relationship building is one of the most important skills in this industry. Public relations practitioners must have the ability to form trusting and lasting relationships with clients. Without these connections, the field of public relations wouldn’t exist.

Kristen Heflin, public relations professor at The University of Alabama, voiced her own opinion regarding women’s role in relationships.

“Sociologists tend to argue that women are more communicative and empathetic than men,” Heflin said. “While I’m pretty sure this is not always the case, many women are great listeners and communicators. They may simply be interested in capitalizing on their strengths.”

The generalization of women being better communicators and listeners may have a strong influence on why women are attracted to this industry. A clinical research paper, “Understanding the Difference Between Men and Women,” Michael Conner (2007) focused specifically on how men and women approach their problems and the differences between the goals of problem solving for men and women.

“For women, solving a problem can profoundly impact whether they feel closer and less alone or whether they feel distant and less connected. The process of solving a problem can strengthen or weaken a relationship,” said Conner. However, the process of solving problems for men is drastically different.

“For most men, solving a problem presents an opportunity to demonstrate their competence,” according to Conner. “They are often distracted and do not attend well to the quality of the relationship while solving problems.”

This research paper highlights a very important difference in motivations between men and women. Women sincerely care about the relationships they build when solving problems while men focus on how the outcomes reflect their professional status.

If all public relations professionals cared solely about the outcome rather than relationships and connections built along the way, the profession would fall apart.

The majority of students in communication colleges tend to be women

At The University of Alabama, there is a drastic difference in the number of men to women in the public relations department at the College of Communication and Information Sciences.

“For every 10 female students that sign up for advising, I get one male,” Dr. Margot Lamme, associate professor in the UA College of Communication and Information Sciences, said. Dr. Lamme believes female students are all driven by different things: popular culture, family influences and even just the mere fact that there are more women in the field than men.

Professor Heflin said that she has seen this trend at a number of other college campuses.

“I’m not quite sure why PR at UA is so female dominated, but it’s like that at The University of Georgia and University of North Carolina as well,” Heflin said. “I think that initially PR was a career that women migrated to because it did not challenge gender roles as much as other careers at that time.”

Heflin suggested that women in colleges are attracted to the public relations profession because they feel as though they are more accepted in the industry.

It is human nature to migrate toward situations where you feel included and most comfortable. “We all like to surround ourselves with whom we feel most welcome,” Linda Hon, executive associate dean of the College of Journalism and Communication at the University of Florida, said.

But isn’t public relations inclusive in nature? Hon believes, “We are not the profession that sits in the corner of the lunchroom and shuts our ears off.” The job of the PR practitioner is to listen to everyone, and to offer a welcoming environment.

Although PR departments are welcoming to both men and women, the female dominance of the industry may be creating a hesitation for men interested in the field.

The portrayal of public relations in the media

Popular television shows including “Sex and the City,” “Mad Men” and “Entourage” tend to portray women in the public relations industry in the same way: sexy and fashionable.

According to an Inside Public Relations blog, “the portrayal of public relations on the big and small screen as a sexy, fast moving, well-paid and exciting job that is welcoming to women could be one of the reasons why women are attracted toward this profession.”

Women tend to be social and enjoy interacting with others. When there is a profession publicized on television that highlights these social interactions, they will most likely pursue a career in that specific field. There are some women who do not appreciate this “social” depiction of the profession, as well as those who believe the stereotypes to be simply preposterous.

“It perpetuates a stereotype of PR practitioners being ‘event planners’ and frivolous fashionistas,” Heflin said. “It also serves to further mystify the role of what PR practitioners really do. You never see the strategy, research or incredibly hard work that goes into PR.”

In the German explorative study, results revealed the “evolution of the ‘PR bunny’ stereotype” adding a negative touch to the female image as ‘natural born communicators’.”

Women are accredited the “natural born communicators” because of their niche of being the “social bunnies” of social events. Women’s role as the communicators needs to be reflected as a necessary professional skill rather than simply being the life of the party.

Alicia Rohan, media consultant for KC Projects, believes public relations is more than attending the happy hours and being fashionable.

“Of course women in PR stay on top of trends, whether it is fashion or up to the minute news — it is their job,” Rohan said. “It’s all about knowing your customer and portraying the image that your company wants to promote.”

The stereotypes depicted in these television series can also be seen as too far-fetched to be considered a problem for women in the profession. When asked her opinion on the subject, Hon didn’t seem too worried over the fictional depictions of PR; “I don’t think there’s a detrimental impact on corporate PR.”

It is obvious that a job consisting solely of martinis, clubs and restaurant meetings does not exist. “”The Sex and the City’ depiction of PR is so ludicrous, I don’t see how people could believe that,” Hon said.

The media depicts these fictional professions for the sole purpose of entertainment. The media wouldn’t reach nearly as many viewers if they displayed PR as the profession it is: writing, planning, strategy and law.

Women’s missing role in managerial positions

In an article published in the Journal of Public Relations Research, Vol. 16, by Linda Aldoory and Elizabeth Toth women were described as “slowly moving into management roles, although arguably, a glass ceiling still exists for many women.”

According to an article in the Journal of Public Relations Research, Vol. 14, this glass ceiling is the barrier making it difficult for women holding middle-management positions to rise to top-level or CEO positions.

In the 2007 German study, it is argued that this glass ceiling can be attributed to the fact that women are accredited the position of the natural “communicators”: “the female public relations practitioners are being stereotyped as being the PR companion to male professionals in the field as being their ‘small talk tool.’”

For what was once their niche in the industry, communication skills may be devaluing women’s professional skills. It may be the reason why men still hold more managerial positions.

On the other hand, Hon remains positive on the subject. She predicts that women will become part of the majority of those succeeding in management positions, not only in the public relations profession, but in all industries.

What the future holds

Although there are still gender-based differences in the industry, and we continue to see salary discrepancies, Hon believes the stereotype of women being inferior to men in the business industry to be old fashioned.

Women are beginning to see a change in the perceptions of their positions in the workplace. Yes, there still exists those stereotypes that women are less capable of managerial positions, but the future holds only more opportunities.

“I don’t think the [PR] field will be compromised for women,” Hon said. Hon trusts that the future holds only more opportunities for women to utilize their communications skills to rise in the hierarchal positions in all industries.

Print Sources:

Linda Childers Hon, Larissa A. Grunig, and Elizabeth Lance Toth. Women in Public Relations: How Gender Influences Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, 2001.

Linda Aldoory and Elizabeth Toth. (2004.) “Leadership and Gender in Public Relations: Perceived Effectiveness of Transformational and Transactional Leadership Styles.” Journal of Public Relations Research, Vol. 16, pp. 157-183.

Youjin Choi and Linda Childers Hon. (2002). “The Influence of Gender Composition in Powerful Positions on PR Practitioners’ Gender Related Perceptions.” Journal of Public Relations Research, Vol. 14,pp. 229-263.

2 Comments

  1. Heather Yaxley

    Interesting post and enjoyed the linkage with the academic literature. We write quite often at PR Conversations on similar issues (eg http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2011/12/a-journey-to-mars-how-planet-pr-used-to-be/). I’d recommend also the paper: Rediscovering Women in PR by Gower(Journalism History 2001) which has some other considerations in respect of the 1940s-1970s.

    Reply

  2. Beth Verhine

    This article brought an interesting issue into my attention. When I tell friends and family that I’m majoring in public relations the underlying stigma that my major of choice is easy hangs in the air. The assumption that PR is sexy and trendy is definitely perpetuated by popular shows such as Sex and the City. I think the portrayal of a PR practitioner as fun-loving and easy-going could influence the popularity of the major to incoming freshman girls. I hope that the industry isn’t diluted down to the level that was described in the article, but having great programs like the one at UA will help continue to raise the standard in the PR world.

    Reply

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