The Gender Gap in PR: what research tells us

In the week following International Women’s Day (Saturday 8 March 2014) we will be publishing exclusive CIPR Conversation contributions on the experiences and views from women relating to equal pay and gender balance in public relations. For further information on the CIPR’s commitment to tackling this issue, view our online news release and contribute your opinions by completing our ‘Mind the Gap’ survey.

Guest post by Liz Yeomans, Principal Lecturer of Public Relations and Communication at Leeds Metropolitan University.

Public relations is a female-dominated profession, with up to 70 per cent of the profession numerically feminised in some European countries. Yet, comparatively few women advance to senior level roles. Typically, male practitioners occupy the senior positions and female practitioners occupy the junior and middle-level positions: this has led to a profession which is divided along gender lines, with women dominating in education (up to 90% female PR undergraduate students, for example) and at the entrance level, but playing a relatively limited role in senior positions, including the boardroom. There is a gender gap that has led to considerable pay differentials between the sexes.  What is going on?

Stuart Bruce refers to culture playing a role in influencing gender role expectations, such as a more equal sharing of the parental role in Sweden that enables both sexes to enjoy more fulfilling careers. As I argue in a recent publication (Yeomans, 2014) it is the less visible cultural and social processes, including how gender itself is performed during everyday interactions, that serve to reinforce the status quo. Recent academic studies help us to identify the clues to the gender gap, and qualitative research in particular can help us to get behind and understand the broad statistical trends revealed in successive CIPR surveys.

Brenda Wrigley, a US researcher, identified through her in-depth study of women PR practitioners what she interpreted as a “negotiated resignation” towards the so-called ‘glass ceiling effect’ whereby invisible barriers are encountered by women who aspire to top jobs, even though a clear pathway appears to exist. Rather than challenge the structures that prevent them from being treated fairly in the workplace, Wrigley found that women instead question themselves and look to overcome their disadvantaged positions through a variety of strategies including: “getting along and fitting in, attempting to please by working harder and building consensus, or being a peacemaker in resolving conflicts between co-workers” (Wrigley, 2002, p.49). One of Wrigley’s key findings was that some women denied that a glass ceiling existed in public relations. She interpreted this both as denial of structure and as a survival strategy. This adaptive strategy allowed some women to continue in their jobs while non-consciously supporting the status quo. Suzanne Hughes’ 2011 qualitative study of 14 UK women PR leaders found a similar ‘denial’ of the glass ceiling among top practitioners; that these women tended towards a liberal feminist viewpoint; and adopted male strategies for career advancement.

Liberal feminism supports the doctrine of individualism, which advocates that all men and women are rational individuals who are capable of competing for jobs on an equal footing, assuming that the correct adjustments are made to social structures and gender roles. Ideas for addressing inequalities involve women practitioners taking individual action in adapting to social structures, found in Wrigley’s and Hughes’ studies, rather than challenging these structures collectively, as advocated by alternative philosophies such as radical feminism. Perhaps it’s the nature of the PR role that women either don’t want to or feel unable to make waves as a collective, unlike their sisters in journalism, who have campaigned vocally on issues such as age and sex discrimination in broadcasting.

Other researchers argue that in the 21st century, post-feminism has taught us that gender equality has been achieved: there is no need to talk about gender issues at all (what Sarah Hall in her blog refers to as the “elephant in the room”). This assumption of gender equality blinds young women and men to recognising the existence of gender issues in the workplace. Australian researchers Kate Fitch and Amanda Third (2010) give the example of PR conferences where the organisers make no apology for a complete absence of women from the list of keynote speakers, in spite of there being potential female speaker candidates available.

An analysis of survey responses across Europe shows “consistent and significantly different” perceptions between male and female practitioners of being “taken seriously” and having “strategic impact” on their senior management, with women in most European regions expressing greater pessimism about their strategic impact than men (Verhoeven and Aarts, 2010, p.11). The difference in perceptions between men and women may be attributed to different ‘gender systems’. Qualitative research has highlighted such ‘gender systems’ at work, for example, what Romy Fröhlich calls the ‘friendliness trap’ whereby women’s competence in relationship-building is one of the possible reasons why women are consigned to the lower ranks in public relations agency work (Fröhlich, 2010). Verhoeven and Aarts (2010) suggest that public relations professionals should become more aware of gender issues within a gendered profession; while Fitch and Third (2010, p.1) similarly call for “greater attention to, and reflexivity about, gender issues” by both the PR industry and academics.

The CIPR is developing a diversity strategy which not only recognises that a gender gap in public relations exists but that practical actions can be taken to address these issues; but, as I argue above, cultural and social factors are deep-rooted and complex. During a recent visit to a female student on a paid work placement in the fashion industry, the PR manager told me how pleased she was with the student. Not only did the student work the same long hours that her colleagues worked, but she “looked right” for the job. This might seem like an innocuous statement but how many young women are recruited to entry level positions with these ideas in mind (by women and men managers)? And how many young men at entry level are reflexively judged for their leadership potential?

We in universities need to discuss gender issues in PR openly with our students. The ability to negotiate salaries is recognised as important but I am not sure that we are adequately equipping our students, and our female students in particular, to negotiate their first salary (many of our PR students already have a one year placement/internship on their CV), or indeed, to aspire to leadership roles.

This year, the first EU-funded international summer school on the theme of gender in public relations will be held at Leeds Metropolitan University with the aim of enabling practitioners, scholars and postgraduate students to make a difference in their professional lives.  As well as teaching about gender issues, we also need to conduct more qualitative studies in the UK to further reveal the processes underpinning the gender gap in PR; uncover good practice where it exists, and share it.


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