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Women in PR: Seats in the Office, But Not at the Table

Published on December 2, 2019, at 2:30 p.m.
by Gabrielle Sirois.

Look around most public relations agencies or classrooms, and chances are you will see mostly women. This industry is known for being primarily female-driven; however, when you look at who occupies the leadership roles in this industry, it is mostly men. There is a large disparity between the number of women in public relations and the number of leadership roles they hold. For reference, about 75% of jobs in public relations are held by women, but only 30% of all global PR agencies are run by women and just 20% of senior-level positions are held by women.

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

Why are so many women drawn to the PR industry in the first place? Louise Oliver, the president of PERITUS Public Relations, said that she believes what draws both men and women to the field is the “genuine desire to help problem-solve through communications.”

“I think a lot of people that are drawn to our field, both male and female, really have that innate sense of wanting to utilize something they’re good at (in all of our case communications) and leverage it in a way that improves the way organizations, people and businesses build relationships and ultimately achieve their goals,” she said.

Talia Beckett, the founder and president of Women in PR, said she believes the industry attracts so many women because PR requires the ability to listen to, empathize with and advocate for clients, skills that she believes are a natural fit for a lot of women. These are also skills that she believes make good managers and strong leaders.

So if women seem to be perfect fits for this industry, why does the leadership disparity exist? Some may be inclined to argue that women aren’t as efficient leaders as men, but studies have shown that ‘feminine’ leadership styles are actually the most effective. Women have proven that they are just as good of leaders as men, so why aren’t more given the chance to demonstrate their abilities?

Beckett shared some insight into why she believes this gap exists. Her opinion is that a lot of it has to do with the confidence level of women in the workplace. She said if you are able to surround yourself with other confident women who want to see you succeed, your own confidence will increase, and so will your salary.

Through Beckett’s research for Women in PR, she also found that a lot of women take time off from their careers at least once whether it be to raise a family, go back to school or manage other demands. However, when these women are ready to reenter the workforce, many companies are unwilling to hire them. Companies are missing out on leveraging this talent pool of experienced workers because of their bias toward taking time off.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

So what can professionals in the industry do to help lessen the leadership gap? Oliver asserted the importance of mentorship, and even further than that, sponsorship. She said that while mentors are important for any professional to have as they help you navigate the industry, encourage you through challenges and overall serve as a sounding board for you, sponsors are especially critical for women to help advocate for your advancement.

“Think of it as an internal mentor for the organization that you work in,” Oliver explained. “They are invested in helping you move forward in that organization. Maybe they’re mentioning you in a meeting and saying, ‘Hey I think we should give ___ a shot for this,’ or they’re making sure that you’re landing that really challenging assignment that’s going to help you grow in your career. They’re ensuring that you’re getting those visible and developmental needs in order for you to progress in your career path.”

Oliver said that she believes women are relationship-driven, which makes them very good at acquiring mentors, but that in order to encourage more female leadership roles, more women and men need to sponsor young professionals at their organizations.

A 2019 study conducted by the Institute for Public Relations and KPMG about women’s leadership in PR echoed this idea of sponsorship. It found that both men and women feel that “a sponsor, champion, or career advocate is beneficial for supporting career mobility and serving as a sounding board for guidance.”

Though the public relations industry still has a long way to go, it is important to note that there is hope for improvement because positive change is already being enacted in the profession. Oliver noted that in her home state of Alabama, she is seeing more and more women not only running their own agencies, but also employing teams of female professionals.

The Institute for PR and KPMG study also found that the executive environment has changed positively in recent years. Where there used to be apprehension about women helping other women due to the scarcity of female leadership roles, now there is more openness.

There are so many more female-driven organizations and resources, like Women in PR, that want to see females succeed in this industry. From here, there is nowhere to go but up, and it is the responsibility of every professional within this industry to support and inspire the next generation of PR professionals, both women and men.

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